Scotland becomes first part of UK to recognise signing for deaf as official language
Campaigners have hailed new legislation which will recognise signing as an official language in Scotland as a step towards breaking the “brick ceiling” which the deaf community faces in everyday life.
The British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, which is due to become law in the next few weeks, will see Scotland become the first part of the UK to recognise signing for the deaf as an official language.
It means the Scottish Government and public bodies will have a responsibility to promote the language and consider how services can be provided in British Sign Language (BSL).
Sign language has its own grammar, structure and regional variations, with different vocabulary depending on where you live. The use of gestures give context, facial expressions show the tone and the hands can be used to indicate the ‘volume’ of what someone is saying.
Like any language it also evolves - some traditional signs have been ditched in recent years as they are now seen as offensive, such as the sign for gay, which used to be a flicked limp wrist, or a slanted-eye sign to indicate Chinese.
According to the most recent census figures there are just under 13,000 people in Scotland who use sign language at home, but the British Deaf Association (BDA) believes the size of the deaf community in Scotland is far greater.
Speaking through a sign language interpreter, Avril Hepner, Scottish community development manager for the BDA, said sign language was the “first and natural language” for deaf people, who may learn written English at school but usually as a second language – equivalent to, for example, learning a few hours of French every week.
She said there were many examples where deaf people were unable to access information about crucial issues such as health in their own sign language.
“You can imagine having a level of English - but as a second language and then having to try to understand every bit of jargon, medical terms and legal terms,” she said.
“When someone has cancer for example they get given a whole load of leaflets, on all the questions you would want to know. But what ends up happening is someone has to translate that.
“If you are deaf and there is anything wrong with you, there is no privacy, as you have to rely on everyone else as you can’t access the information independently."
She added: “You can imagine how it stings when you see it is available in braille, large print, every spoken language – but not in sign language.
“What we are looking for is to be treated the same - we want someone to be able to access information on their own without this reliance on everyone else.”
The bill is expected to receive Royal Assent in the next few weeks, after which a national plan will be drawn up to give guidance to public sector organisations on how best to approach introducing sign language to services. It is expected this process – which will involve consultation with local groups and the deaf community – will take around two years.
Hepner said she expected to see the benefits of the new legislation in the longer-term, which will impact on everything from improvements in education and healthcare, to better employment prospects and more opportunities for the deaf community to enjoy arts and culture.
“I would love to say everything is going to change tomorrow,” she said. “But I hope we will be changing culture and the way people think.
“We talk about women having a glass ceiling – deaf people have got a brick roof (to break through).”
Labour MSP Mark Griffin, who introduced the bill to the Scottish Parliament, said a big driver in pushing for legislation was learning about the experiences of two of his great-grandparents who were deaf/blind.
“When I was elected to the Parliament in 2011 I joined the cross-party group on deafness and people would tell you about the exact same difficulties my great-grandparents had three generations ago still existing today," he said.
“The bill puts a responsibility on the Scottish Government to promote the language in itself and also for every public body in Scotland to consider how it provides their services in BSL – that should make a massive difference to BSL users.”
British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015