How the BSL Bill could change the UK
Victoria Shipp discusses the new British Sign Language Bill and what it means for deaf people in the UK.
I have followed Rose Ayling-Ellis on Twitter since week 3 of her Strictly journey. Admittedly, this was initially due to her dancing with Giovanni, but it led me to her campaigns to improve life for deaf people. And I am not the only one; a survey showed that three-quarters of deaf children thought her appearance on Strictly Come Dancing had given the public a better understanding of deafness. It is no surprise then that both politicians and the media have named her when discussing legally recognising BSL. Rosie Cooper, the MP who introduced the British Sign Language Bill, even spoke about the great timing of introducing a BSL Bill during Rose’s rise to prominence.
In a way, the movement behind Rose and the BSL Bill itself has already achieved some of the Bill’s aims. Reports from companies offering courses on BSL, as well as Google Trends, suggest that Rose has inspired people to learn BSL. Hopefully, this will help make the world more accessible and inclusive for deaf people – the ultimate aim of the Bill. It may also help the Department of Work and Pensions to increase the number of BSL interpreters, something which is needed to help those who are deaf participate fully in life. It is clear, however, that the Bill is still needed.
In a way, the greatest change the Bill could achieve is for the provisions of the Bill to no longer be necessary
Despite government statements of support, legal guidance is needed to hold them to their word. The necessity of this is evidenced by the Covid briefings during which this same government, making sweeping statements of support, failed to include BSL interpreters. This meant that members of the deaf community were excluded from vital health information, potentially risking their safety. Creating a legal duty for the Government to promote the use of BSL is essential to holding even the most well-wishing government accountable. Cooper herself points put the importance of moving on from gestures to action and legal certainty as a key feature of the Bill.
A large portion of the Bill focuses on the role of the Department of Work and Pensions. The accessibility of work is vital in allowing the deaf community to have the same chances as anyone else to develop professionally. The Bill hopes to achieve this by including BSL users in the Access to Work scheme, as well as launching a consultation of how flexible working could make the workplace easier to access.
a historical wrong in which a system of communication that hundreds of thousands rely on every day was overlooked by the legal system
However, the main achievement of the Bill may be a symbolic one: it makes BSL a legally recognised language. The importance of this was summed up by David Buxton, chair of the British Deaf Association, who spoke about how the Bill was “19 years in the making” and thus an important result for those who had been campaigning for equality of language. Perhaps this is the most important aspect of the Bill – the righting of a historical wrong in which a system of communication that hundreds of thousands rely on every day was overlooked by the legal system.
Hopefully, the BSL Bill will help to maintain the momentum achieved over the last year, and help society to become more accommodating of the deaf community. In a way, the greatest change the Bill could achieve is for the provisions of the Bill to no longer be necessary.