The UK Deaf community is celebrating after a Bill to give British Sign Language legal recognition passed its second reading on Friday (28 January).
Although the language was formally recognised by the UK government in 2003, it does not yet have full legal status. This means many Deaf people are unable to access essential information and services in their own language.
A Private Members Bill was introduced on 16 June 2021 by Rosie Cooper, Labour MP for West Lancashire and the campaign for legal recognition has been backed by Strictly Come Dancing 2021 winner, Deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis.
If the Bill successfully passes through the House of Commons and House of Lords, a BSL Act would increase the official status and public awareness of BSL.
It would mean that government departments and public bodies should follow guidance that gives Deaf people “equal access to education, employment, public services such as the NHS”, according to the British Deaf Association (BDA).
Government departments and public bodies would be required to report on their performance against this guidance.
David Buxton, Chair of the British Deaf Association, said the Bill had been 19 years in the making.
“Deaf people in Britain never gave up hope that their language would one day be not only recognised in law, but also protected and promoted so that Deaf people are finally able to access information and services and achieve their potential on an equal basis with their fellow hearing citizens,” he said.
Cooper said the Bill would help BSL users to work on “a more equal playing field with everyone else”.
The Bill would also see the launch of an advisory board of BSL users to offer guidance to the Department of Work and Pensions on how and when to use it, as well as recruit more BSL interpreters.
Other measures would include reviewing how the Access to Work scheme supports BSL users, and how the government updates its national disability strategy to facilitate and promote BSL usage.
The minister for disabled people, health and work 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 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.”
Recent figures from the British Deaf Association suggest that on any day up to 250,000 people use some BSL.