Deaf people will show their support outside parliament tomorrow (Friday) for legislation that would secure legal status for British Sign Language (BSL), after a wait of nearly 20 years.
The rally is taking place on the day that Labour MP Rosie Cooper, whose parents were both Deaf and whose first language was BSL, presents her British Sign Language bill for its second reading in the House of Commons.
Last night, the government told Disability News Service that it would be supporting her bill.
Cooper’s bill – published for the first time yesterday – would recognise BSL as “a language of England, Wales and Scotland”, but it also makes clear that this declaration “does not affect the operation of any enactment or rule of law”.
It would also impose a duty on the relevant secretary of state to publish regular reports showing what each of 20 government departments had done to “promote or facilitate the use of British Sign Language in its communications with the public”.
And it would impose a duty on the government to issue guidance on the “promotion and facilitation” of the use of British Sign Language.
But the bill that has been published – with government support – appears to be weaker than the one Deaf campaigners were calling for earlier this week.
The bill only refers to government departments, and not other public bodies, and there is no mention of the call from Deaf campaigners for public bodies to have regard to new guidance on how they should meet the needs of the UK’s estimated 87,000 BSL-users.
The bill does not appear to give BSL-users full and equal access to education, employment and public services such as the NHS, and allow them to take part in political debates and play a greater role in their local communities, as Deaf campaigners have called for.
It is not yet clear whether Deaf campaigners and their organisations will support the bill that has been published, and which is now backed by the government.
The British Deaf Association (BDA) said this week that Deaf people were facing discrimination every day, pointing to the case of Francesca Bussey, who – because of the failure to provide them with a qualified BSL interpreter – had to tell her Deaf father in hospital that he was dying.
It also pointed to the campaigning efforts of Deaf schoolboy Daniel Jillings, who was denied the chance to take a GCSE in BSL.
And it highlighted the legal actions taken against the government over its repeated failure to provide a BSL interpreter for televised COVID-19 briefings.
BDA’s BSL Act Now! campaign led last year to nearly 90 per cent of MPs receiving letters from Deaf constituents, asking them to introduce a BSL bill if they secured one of 20 priority slots in the Commons private members’ bill ballot.
Cooper came 20th in the 2021 ballot, which would usually mean that her bill was unlikely to secure enough Commons time to become law.
But a government spokesperson said yesterday (Wednesday) that ministers would be supporting Cooper’s bill.
The Labour government formally recognised BSL as a language in March 2003 and promised then to examine whether it could be given legal status.
Speaking before the bill was published, David Buxton, BDA’s chair, said: “Nineteen years on, we’re still waiting.
“Enough is enough! We are tired of being excluded from playing a full role in society.
“Deaf people still do not have access to the same essential information and services that are available to the hearing population.
“The Equality Act does not cover linguistic rights. We are forced to rely on inadequate disability discrimination legislation to access information in our own language.
“British Sign Language is an indigenous language of the UK and should be accorded the same legal protection as Welsh and Scottish Gaelic.”
Among other BSL-users to support BDA’s campaign is actor Rose Ayling-Ellis, whose success on BBC Strictly Come Dancing last month helped raised the profile of BSL and the barriers Deaf people face.
Ayling-Ellis told The Big Issue earlier this month: “I’m backing it because this is my language.
“The fact that my country doesn’t see it that way is really sad and means we don’t get the respect we deserve, and the language deserves.”
She added: “We have come such a long way – in the olden days, at schools for deaf children, they would make them sit on their hands or whip them for signing.
“There are so many traumas in our history but [it is] also such a rich history. If it becomes an official language, which we’ve been fighting for all these years, it will be so emotional for us.”
A government spokesperson told Disability News Service last night: “We encourage the use of BSL as a vital tool that improves the lives of deaf people up and down the country.
“That’s why we’re supporting the BSL bill on Friday, which recognises BSL as a language in its own right and will see guidance issued to departments across government on the promotion and facilitation of it.”
Cooper said earlier this month: “There are around 90,000 deaf people in the UK that rely on BSL, yet they have to fight every day to be heard or listened to.
“My bill aims to help put deaf BSL users on a more equal playing field with everyone else, to require the government to work with Deaf people to develop guidance on how public bodies should enable the use of BSL across their services.”
Among the organisations supporting BDA’s BSL Act Now! campaign are RNID, Royal Association for Deaf people, Signature, Institute of British Sign Language, SignHealth, National Deaf Children’s Society, National Register of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People, and Black Deaf UK.
The campaign is encouraging Deaf people and allies to attend tomorrow’s rally between 11.30am and 2.30pm.
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