Deaf activists have raised serious concerns about a new government-backed British Sign Language (BSL) bill that could be about to become law.
BSL-users have been warned repeatedly that the new bill, put forward by Labour MP Rosie Cooper, will provide them with no new rights.
But there was still huge support for the bill at a rally in Trafalgar Square in London on Friday, on the day that it passed its last hurdle in the House of Commons.
There was significant support for the bill from backbench Tories, with nine Conservative MPs making speeches welcoming the legislation, with – other than Cooper – only the shadow minister for disabled people, Vicky Foxcroft, making a speech from the Labour benches.
The bill now needs to be passed by the House of Lords, with its second Lords reading due to take place tomorrow (Friday).
Although the bill would recognise BSL as a language in England, Scotland and Wales if it became law, it would not provide BSL-users with any new rights.
The rally took place on 18 March, 19 years after the government formally recognised BSL as a language, although not in legislation.
The bill would require the work and pensions secretary to produce regular reports on what 20 government departments have done to “promote or facilitate” the use of BSL in their “communications with the public”.
And it would require the work and pensions secretary to secure guidance for government departments and other public bodies on the “promotion and facilitation” of BSL.
Lee Starr-Elliott, a Deaf trade unionist and disability activist, said it was a “token bill that the government are using to look good without costing anything” while “those involved in the bill have sold it to the Deaf community as a step forward”.
He said: “While I agree with the idealism of the bill, I believe it does not go far enough, nor is it strong enough to make a real difference.
“I believe it is short-sighted and naive for the Deaf community and those involved in the bill to trust this government, which has a poor track record and regularly attacks and targets disabled people and weakens their voice.
“Why should we have to wait to make further improvements and hope that over time things will get better?
“Deaf people have waited for too long; we should be given what we are asking for in full now, not pin our hopes on a promise that is most likely to be broken once this bill passes.”
Kirsty Jade, a Deaf activist, educator and content creator, said: “I support the idea of Deaf people getting rights. The BSL bill is not going to do that.
“For every Deaf person to be protected under legislation, stakeholders must contribute and collaborate in every aspect of social justice, especially with Deaf youth.
“The reality is that while we have a shared sense of being Deaf, every Deaf person lives a very different life in this country.
“By not recognising that in this bill, we are putting many Deaf people on the sidelines, and prioritising privileged ones.”
Kerena Marchant, a Deaf film-maker and activist, said she was “delighted” that BSL had been recognised as a language but had concerns about the bill and “the way it has come about”.
She said that “recognition without provision doesn’t lead to change.
“To have provision to ensure rights and access to society for BSL users you need funding. BSL access costs money.”
She said: “I’m afraid the government have craftily used the Deaf community to gain brownie points at zero cost, using the increased public awareness of BSL, and kicked BSL rights and provision into the long grass, putting the battle for BSL rights and provision back for another decade at least.”
Marchant said she was also concerned about the lack of information in BSL given to the Deaf community about the bill before it received its first reading in the House of Commons.
She added: “Given the government’s failure to consult with the disabled community over its disability strategy, it is a pipe dream that they will continue to consult and engage with the Deaf community on provisions and funding to change this bill from a piece of paper to reality.”
David Buxton, chair of the British Deaf Association, who has led attempts to secure a BSL Act, claimed that the bill presented “a real opportunity for change, to finally break down avoidable communication barriers and to give Deaf people and their language – BSL – the recognition, inclusion, and equality that they deserve.
“If the BSL bill passes into law, we are ready to work hand-in-hand with the UK government to redesign public services that meet the unique needs of the 151,000 people who have British Sign Language as their first or preferred language.
“We also hope that the legal recognition of BSL will encourage many more people across the UK to learn BSL and go on to become interpreters, bilingual professionals and allies of the Deaf community. BSL can bring us all together as a society.”
Another supporter of the bill, Mark Atkinson, chief executive of the charity RNID, said: “We at RNID, our supporters and the wider Deaf community are delighted that the British Sign Language bill has cleared the final stage of its passage through the House of Commons.
“We hope it receives the same support from peers in the House of Lords as it has from MPs and ministers.
“We welcome the mechanisms within the bill and commitment from government to working with a proposed advisory board of Deaf people to put the bill into practice.
“Giving the Deaf community a seat at the table will mean government policies and public services will… meet the needs of Deaf people for fully inclusive and accessible services.
“We mustn’t miss the vital opportunity the bill gives us to win legal recognition of BSL and expand Deaf people’s rights.
“On behalf of the Deaf community and alongside other charities, we will continue pushing to make sure the bill is passed into law before the end of this session of parliament.”
Dr Gearóidín McEvoy, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham on the legal recognition of sign languages internationally, has previously said that the bill would provide Deaf people with no new rights as individuals, and would offer only a “symbolic step forward”.
Chloe Smith, the minister for disabled people, told fellow MPs during the bill’s third reading that the scope of the bill was “limited” but that it would “make real improvements to the communication options, and the lives, of Deaf people”.
She said the government would establish a non-statutory advisory board of BSL-users to advise the work and pensions secretary on BSL issues; examine how the government might increase the number of BSL interpreters; and review how DWP might improve how the Access to Work fund works for BSL-users.
She said she was also working with the Department for Education to “see what more can be done to accelerate” the introduction of a GCSE in BSL.
Picture: British Deaf Association
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…