Social Justice

‘It will be so emotional’: Rose Ayling-Ellis on BSL becoming an official language

A bill to make British Sign Language a recognised language in public life has been passed by MPs. Strictly winner Rose Ayling-Ellis told The Big Issue about the difference it will make.

Around 150,000 people across the UK use British Sign Language. Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

British Sign Language (BSL) is set to become a recognised language after the government backed a campaign by a Labour MP.

Rosie Cooper‘s Private Member’s Bill aiming to include BSL interpreters in public service announcements as standard was passed on Friday after having its second reading in the House of Commons.

This means BSL is set to become an officially recognised language across the whole of the UK – it currently only holds that status in Scotland. People will have a legal right to a BSL interpreter in their dealing with public services and government departments, at doctor’s surgeries, when calling 999 and at job centres.

Rose Ayling-Ellis, actor and Strictly Come Dancing winner, got behind the bill ahead of its second reading in parliament this week.

“I’m backing it because this is my language,” she told The Big Issue. “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.

“It is such a beautiful, rich language with its own structure, its own grammar, its own slang. If BSL becomes an official language, which we’ve been fighting for all these years, it will be so emotional for us. Because of the massive interest in BSL recently, a lot of people don’t realise how much of a fight the deaf community have had.”

Having now passed its second reading, the BSL bill must complete two more stages before becoming law, which is expected in March.

If the bill is passed, an advisory board will be established to increase and improve the use of BSL in Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) operations.

BSL was recognised by the UK government in 2003 but does not have the same protections in law as other languages across the country, such as Welsh, therefore is not consistently made available within public services.

“It always worried me – luckily, touch wood, I never had to call 999, but it is scary,” Ayling-Ellis said. “What if there is no interpreter available? If this bill goes through, they will have to put them in place.

“The government never really listens to us. Hopefully they will listen now.”

Around 150,000 people across the UK currently use BSL, according to British Deaf Association figures, including 87,000 deaf people.

“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,” said Rosie Cooper MP.

As the government came out in public support of the bill ahead of its second reading, DWP minister Chloe Smith said: “Effective communication is vital to creating a more inclusive and accessible society, and legally recognising British Sign Language in Great Britain is a significant step towards ensuring that deaf people are not excluded from reaching their potential.

“Passing the bill will see the government commit to improving the lives of deaf people, and will encourage organisations across the nation to take up the BSL mantle, benefitting both themselves and the deaf community.”

Ayling-Ellis’s use of BSL on Strictly Come Dancing triggered a surge in people signing up to learn it, and she hopes the bill will place BSL at the forefront of language study.

“I’ve had so many messages from people saying they want to learn sign language in schools,” she said.

“So yes, let’s teach BSL in schools. I mean, French, German and Spanish – I’m sure they are also important. But sign language is awesome. Young people love to learn it. And then we will have more interpreters!”

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