The British Sign Language Bill is a major win for the Deaf community in 2022

A Bill to legally recognise British Sign Language passed its second reading in the Commons this afternoon

Liam O'Dell
Friday 28 January 2022 14:42 GMT
Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice celebrate winning Strictly Come Dancing (Guy Levy/BBC/PA)
Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice celebrate winning Strictly Come Dancing (Guy Levy/BBC/PA) (PA Media)

It might surprise you to learn that British Sign Language (or simply BSL) has not historically been a legally-recognised language in the United Kingdom. After all, it was only last month that EastEnders actress and Deaf BSL user Rose Ayling-Ellis lifted up the glitterball as the winner of the latest series of Strictly Come Dancing.

Unfortunately, life for Deaf people isn’t always glitter and sparkles, and visibility is not the same as recognition. It’s exactly why we needed a BSL Act in the first place.

Thankfully, West Lancashire MP Rosie Cooper – who herself is the Child of Deaf Adults, or a CODA – decided to take the significant step to make that happen. Her British Sign Language Bill had its second reading in the Commons this afternoon – it was passed, and will now grant legal status to a language which was only been recognised in a government capacity since 2003.

As well as officially recognising BSL, the Bill will see a council set up to create “principles for the use of BSL in public services [and] to require public bodies to have regard to those principles” – and it really couldn’t come soon enough.

In a devastating public health crisis, hearing adults are currently having to interpret their Deaf parents’ terminal cancer diagnoses. An interpreting service which made GP phone calls accessible to sign language users had to close in March 2021 – because the NHS refused to fund it further.

The icing on a pretty ugly birthday cake (to use a rather apt phrase considering recent events) is the UK Government being found to have broken equality law over its failure to provide an interpreter for two Covid data briefings in 2020, and yet continuing to not provide one to sign next to the prime minister in-person in Downing Street.

David Buxton, chair of the British Deaf Association (BDA) which has been leading the charge on the campaign, puts it perfectly: “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.”

The Bill may have passed its second reading, but it will still have a long way to go. It will now need to go through the committee and report stages, along with a third and final reading in the Commons, before repeating the same process in the Lords.

Support from MPs across the Commons is essential to push the bill all the way through the parliamentary process. There is still time to contact your MP and lobby them to support the Bill. The BDA has a draft template letter on its website, and a rally is taking place in Parliament Square today to drum up support in person.

Fortunately, recent communications about the Bill suggests that Tory MPs and government ministers are supportive and engaging with it – specifically Chloe Smith MP, the minister for disabled people, who has been working on its development.

What a refreshing change of approach compared to her predecessor, Justin Tomlinson MP, who in 2015 said the government had “no appetite” to legally recognise BSL as a minority language.

Make no mistake: when the BSL Act becomes a reality, it will open up areas of public life to Deaf people which were previously inaccessible. Improved access to healthcare, government information and more for a community whose needs have frustratingly, long been considered an afterthought – not least in the current pandemic.

It is a major win for the Deaf community in 2022, alongside a 999 video relay service (set to launch in the summer) and a public consultation on a BSL GCSE (due to be published in the “first half” of this year).

Hearing people championed our representation and visibility last year through Deaf people such as Rose Ayling-Ellis, when searches for BSL surged by a phenomenal 488 per cent during her time on the BBC competition. Now, they must continue to uplift us. Only then can we begin to right the injustices experienced by the Deaf community over almost two decades.

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