Deaf activists have used the tenth anniversary of the official recognition of British Sign Language (BSL) to call for it to be given the same legal status as Welsh.
They want to see a named minister responsible for driving forward a cross-government approach to supporting BSL with the long-term aim of giving BSL a similar legal status to the Welsh language.
They want the cross-departmental group to examine sign language policies across all departments, and to publish a report identifying all of the barriers faced by BSL-users.
The call was made at a parliamentary reception held to mark the tenth anniversary of the government’s recognition of BSL as a “language in its own right regularly used by a significant number of people”.
But the three charities that organised the reception – the British Deaf Association, the Royal Association for Deaf People and the deaf communication charity Signature – argue that government recognition has not led to any new legal rights for BSL-users.
David Buxton, chief executive of the British Deaf Association, told Disability News Service: “This event is celebrating the tenth anniversary but we would like to be looking at the next ten years and trying to achieve legal status for the language. A BSL act would establish a proper status for the language.”
He pointed to the hugely successful Spit the Dummy Out and Campaign for BSL Act! Facebook page, which has nearly 11,000 members and calls for BSL to be “as equal in the eyes of the law as English and Welsh”.
Buxton said the campaign was about “deaf people telling their own stories, giving examples of their experiences”.
He said: “They are so passionate that they want to see legislation, and they want to see deaf children getting high quality support in school.”
But he warned the reception later that deaf people “must not allow ourselves to be distracted from reducing the barriers that face disabled people on the ground today”.
He said the deaf community had celebrated the recognition of BSL as a language, and he welcomed some of the positive developments over the last 10 years, such as more signing and subtitling on television, better video phone technology, and many deaf people being helped to find and keep jobs by the Access to Work scheme.
But he said there were still many problems, such as the shortage of interpreters, and the “very slow and cumbersome” text relay service.
He told the reception: “Recognition didn’t give BSL any new legal rights. The lack of equality remains a big problem but life today is a bit easier for deaf people than 2003.”
He added: “Many deaf people cannot get work and if they do they are often passed over for promotion.
“Students in secondary school are expected to learn complicated subjects using a communication worker whose communication skills are not as good as the deaf student’s.”
The three organisations say they welcome Department for Education efforts to improve BSL support for very young deaf children, and Department for Culture, Media and Sport work to improve access to video relay services.
But they say not enough has been done since 2003 to address the many barriers that prevent deaf BSL-users from contributing to society.
And they warn that by April this year, a third of local authorities say they will have cut specialist services for deaf children.
Asif Iqbal, president of Harrow Asian Deaf Club, said: “The government recognised BSL in 2003 and that was it. It is just a label, a recognition. It was a one-off.
“We need to think about developing policies, working in partnership with government departments to improve access for the deaf community.”
Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, told the reception: “One of the best things we could do is break down the silos and work together in every way.”
She added: “We need to work together and look at a practical way of working together. That’s what I can offer you today.”
Jill Jones, company secretary of DEXperience, the Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Group, a user-led organisation that represents deaf children, said she feared BSL was almost a “dying language”.
She called for more deaf children to be allowed to use “full” BSL at school, rather than the “hybrid” mix of BSL and English they are often forced to use.
DEXperience believes there is “an urgent need” to increase the numbers of deaf children learning BSL.
Jim Edwards, chief executive of Signature, said there was a need for “a more coordinated approach across government so practical changes can happen”.
Signature is pushing the Conservative education secretary Michael Gove to give the go-ahead for a GCSE in BSL, which Edwards said would mean that “deaf children would have a chance to get a qualification in their own language”.
18 March 2013