A Community Making History

21 February 2022

It's been 19 years since the UK Government recognised British Sign Language and we all hoped that was the first sign of progress after years of campaigning. Nearly two decades on and it still does not have legal status as a language. Rosie Cooper's Private Members' BSL Bill, is a new, powerful and rare opportunity to put this right. As a long-time supporter of Deaf and Deafblind people's rights, a lifetime managing sensory services in local government and from my work with NRCPD, I know just how huge and potent it will be for BSL to finally have legal status; for Deaf BSL users to be seen as equal to their hearing, speaking counterparts; for barriers to be removed for Deaf people.

Many hearing people struggle to imagine having no access to the NHS, education, or public services, but this is daily life for Deaf people. We know of Deaf people who had operations delayed and cancelled because there was no BSL interpreter booked. Deaf people of all ages are affected by the lack of BSL education such as a GCSE in BSL which is long overdue. Thousands of Deaf people had no access to crucial public health information during the pandemic because it was rarely provided in BSL, including poor provision of live BSL interpreting for the national briefings. These are only a few examples, but the truth is: Deaf people battle every day for access and a BSL Bill could change this.

So, it was with a mix of excitement, anxiety, and hope that I made my way to Westminster on Friday 28th January for the BSL Bill rally. Excitement because of the prospect of legal change, anxiety that yet again Deaf people would be let down by the powers that be, and huge hope that this would be the time. There were so many Deaf people and organisations there. The atmosphere was lively, friendly and enthusiastic, with large, vibrant banners everywhere.

The rally was to support the Bill at its Second Reading in Parliament. NRCPD joined the BSL Act Now! campaign in June 2021 with the aim of getting BSL recognised in law, and the group quickly grew to a total of nine prominent Deaf-sector organisations. After many months of meticulous planning by the campaign team, headed by David Buxton and working closely with Rosie Cooper, the BSL Bill was ready for its Second Reading and was boosted by the news the government would support the Bill.

I reflected that recognition of BSL in law will be a momentous change. The Bill provides for an advisory board and the Secretary of State's duty to promote BSL in public services, and these will give us the ability to drive forward the very many changes that are needed. The Bill may not spell out all the solutions, but it will put in place a way to tackle the challenges that exist. Opportunities for the public to create law come round rarely and for many of us this will be now or never-again in our lifetime.

And so, it was a real privilege to be representing NRCPD at the rally. Deaf people spoke of the barriers they experienced to roars of agreement from the crowd. David Buxton encouraged us at regular intervals to turn towards Parliament and sign 'BSL Act Now!' Two little girls in front of me took great delight in signing this with everyone and a disabled woman was so excited that she accidentally hit me with her crutches! And the thrill and emotion as we finally heard the Bill passed unopposed and we cheered and celebrated together.

With many stages still to go through before it can be law, we must surely keep the momentum up behind the bill. The next milestone is the crucial Third Reading which is when MPs vote to accept it before it goes to the House of Lords and this is set to take place on March 18th 2022 - 19 years to the day that BSL was first recognised as a language.

Without doubt, I feel that the Deaf community and its many supporters are coming together to make sure history is made. It's humbling to realise that as a community Deaf people are putting something powerful and important in place. I look forward to more history-making on 18th March.

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