It is now party policy to ask Liberal Democrat ministers to press within government for BSL – which can trace its roots back to the 16th century – to be one of the UK’s official languages, along with Welsh, Cornish and Gaelic.
Such a move would mean a right for Deaf people to have information and services provided in their own language, BSL.
The motion was moved by David Buxton, the first Deaf BSL-user to be elected as a local councillor and now the prospective parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn.
He said that BSL-users currently have to rely on asking for “reasonable adjustments” to be made through the Equality Act if they want to access information and services, but that this often means just having written notes passed to them, rather than being provided with a BSL interpreter.
It is now 10 years since the Labour government recognised BSL as a language, but Buxton said there had been no further progress towards granting it legal status.
He told the annual Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow that his party had been the first to provide BSL interpreters at its annual conferences, the first to invite a Deaf BSL-user to speak at conference, and the first to have a Deaf BSL-user elected as a councillor.
But he said: “I don’t want to be remembered as the first and the last. I want to see more deaf BSL-users elected for public office.”
He said his motion was about “our right to BSL, our right to learn through BSL and have services in BSL provided widely, and have our culture treated respectfully”.
He said: “We could have more families… more teachers of the deaf signing fluently, more interpreters qualified, and more deaf people involved in wider society.”
Buxton said recognition of BSL had been fading, with a reduction in funding, fewer colleges offering BSL courses, families with deaf children having to pay more to learn BSL, and interpreters having to find thousands of pounds in fees to become qualified.
He said he feared that cuts to specialist support for the more than 80 per cent of deaf children who were in mainstream education would make it harder for them to secure qualifications, and could lead to them being bullied and becoming socially withdrawn.
He warned that schools were increasingly employing less experienced support workers, who often did not know how to sign and communicate effectively.
Buxton, who is also chief executive of the British Deaf Association, said: “The government needs to work on and do something about the future of deaf children, protecting them from institutional discrimination.”
Greg Judge, another leading disabled party activist, who has a degree in deaf studies, said that deaf people “don’t want your help, they don’t want a handout, they want your respect as equal citizens. Their language is under attack… their proud culture is in jeopardy.”
And George Potter, executive lead on policy for the Liberal Democrat Disability Association (LDDA), told the debate that the 145,000 BSL-speakers in the UK “lack basic rights”.
He said: “We will continue to lobby in government. It is a good motion and it is a good start; it is not the end, it is just the beginning. Please support basic rights and basic dignity for users of BSL.”
The previous evening, Lilian Lawson, director of the Scottish Council on Deafness, who has campaigned for legal status for BSL in Scotland, told an LDDA fringe meeting that a bill should be introduced into the Scottish parliament to establish BSL as one of Scotland’s official languages by the end of this year.
She said that having reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act was “not good enough”, and added: “We don’t need awareness-raising, we need a law. Every deaf child should have every opportunity to learn sign language as well as English.”
Stephen Lloyd, the deaf Liberal Democrat MP, said he was “absolutely determined” to take the issue back to parliament “and move it right back to the top of the radar”.
He added: “All I want to do essentially is copy the [Scottish] legislation. All deaf children need to be able to learn sign language if they can.”
18 September 2013