Why I'm happy to see BSL finally being recognised

Kirsteen Allison

Kirsteen discusses the impact of the BSL Bill, the importance of recognising Deaf culture and why she's excited to see more changes in the future.

Kirsteen and her hearing dog Frankie
Kirsteen with Frankie, her Hearing Dog for Deaf People

When Rosie Ayling Ellis appeared on Strictly Come Dancing, I confess, as a deaf person, I felt a range of emotions. I felt proud that Rosie was raising awareness of deafness and British Sign Language (BSL). Still, I felt annoyed that hearing people were reacting as though a Deaf person dancing was strange, new, and magical. I sing and dance all the time myself!

Why recognising BSL as an official language is important

Deafness and sign language has never been a new thing, but it has taken until 2022 for the Deaf community to get the legal recognition that they have long been fighting for through the passing of the BSL bill. For Deaf people in Scotland, that recognition came in 2015 with the BSL (Scotland) Act.

The British Deaf Association (BDA), who led the BSL Act Now! Campaign in partnership with other organisations such as the RNID, Sign Heath and the NDCS, say that not only would a BSL Act recognise BSL as an official language of the UK, but it would also help Deaf people to access essential services and information in their own language.

For example, many Deaf people complained that essential Government Covid 19 briefings were not in BSL, leading to confusion and health risks. The Deaf community won a legal case regarding this. Their campaign was called “where is the interpreter?”.

As MP Rosie Cooper, who introduced the Bill, said: “Deaf people have been waiting for 230 years for legal recognition of BSL”. That’s a very long time to wait for accessibility and inclusion.

Understanding Deaf culture

You may have noticed that I am alternating between writing D/deaf, Deaf, and deaf. I am doing this deliberately. As a training and consultancy advisor at Leonard Cheshire, our training includes understanding language and identity. The Deaf community illustrate the importance of this perfectly.

Deaf (sign language users) see themselves as distinct from deaf (hearing impaired) people and other deaf people. Deaf people have their own language (which will now be legally recognised) that is entirely different from English. They have their own identity and culture, separate from other disabled people and deaf people. So, writing Deaf with a capital recognises this. To write deaf is misunderstanding and misrepresenting their unique identity or culture. I write D/deaf when referring to the wider sign language and hearing impaired community.

How sign language can differ

A common misconception is that sign language is the same everywhere in the world. Hearing people believe that if English is the same, sign language is the same. Therefore, the new BSL Act will not apply in Northern Ireland, where both BSL (British Sign Language) and ISL (Irish Sign Language) are used. The government themselves failed to understand this when the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) used ASL (American Sign Language) to celebrate the passing of the BSL (British Sign Language) bill. That error perfectly illustrated why this Act was needed.

I have seen so many positive changes in Scotland resulting from the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015. I’m excited to see similar changes made in other parts of the UK.