Social Justice

MPs vote to make British Sign Language an official language

MPs from both sides of the aisle have voted to recognise British Sign Language as a minority language in England, Wales, and Scotland

Cropped image of the hands of two deaf people signing, with street in background

Photo: SHVETS / Pexels

MPs have voted to recognise British Sign Language (BSL) as an official language of England, Scotland, and Wales.

MPs from both sides of the aisle gathered to pass the British Sign Language Act on Friday. The private member’s bill was sponsored by West Lancashire MP Rosie Cooper, and will grant BSL the same recognition as Welsh and Gallic as a minority language of Britain.

It will also require government departments to explain how they are working to promote and facilitate the use of BSL.

“People assume that BSL is simply sign-supported English… Nothing could be further from the truth”, Cooper told the Commons.

BSL is a natural language, and is not related to English, having developed independently in Deaf communities. Records indicate some contemporary BSL signs date back as far as the 15th century.

“British Sign Language is a primary form of communication for approximately 90,000 UK residents, with around 150,000 users in total,” said fellow MP Vicky Foxcroft. “Its vocabulary and syntax do not replicate spoken English and many deaf citizens have a much lower reading age than the general population.”

Awareness of BSL has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks in part to Deaf Eastenders actor Rose Ayling-Ellis. Ayling-Ellis, the first Deaf contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, shattered misconceptions about what deaf people can achieve when she won the contest last year.

Rose Ayling-Ellis. Image: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Her appearance led to a 4,000 per cent increase in uptake of BSL classes, and she has used her platform to champion the bill. Speaking to The Big Issue earlier this year, she said: “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.

“BSL is not an official language, legally, in this country. Which is outrageous. Because it is such a beautiful, rich language with its own structure, its own grammar, its own slang. It’s even got accents.”

Deaf people face huge difficulties accessing public services, due to a lack of interpreters. They are often forced to rely on friends or family members to interpret for them.

“We hear so many times that a child who has deaf parents will go to a doctor’s appointment with them and they will have asked for an interpreter but they are not provided, so they make the child translate for their parents”, said Ayling-Ellis.

“Sometimes they’re having to translate: ‘You’ve got cancer’, or: ‘You’re dying’. It’s not uncommon in the deaf community. So if the language becomes legal, you have more rights. Because no child should be in that situation. No family should be in that situation.”

The bill will now go to the House of Lords for review. Provided that they make no amendments, it will then be passed on to the Queen, who will sign it into law.

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