Sunday 18th March marked the 15th anniversary since British Sign Language (BSL) was given official recognition as a language under the last Labour government. This date, which fell within British Sign Language Week, was an occasion to celebrate with great pride, as it gave deaf people the basic recognition they deserve.
I was truly honoured to become the first ever Member of Parliament to ask a question in the House of Commons using BSL, during the week of last year’s anniversary. I have a level two qualification in BSL having learnt it many years ago so that I could communicate with a work colleague, and as Ambassador for the Brent and Harrow United Deaf Club this is an issue which is very close to my heart.
It is estimated that there are about nine million people in the UK who are Deaf or hard of hearing. This includes an estimated 151,000 BSL users, 87,000 of whom are deaf. BSL is a beautiful, unique language and deaf and hard of hearing people deserve the right to communicate and live their lives using their preferred language.
Despite the importance of celebrating this anniversary, we must recognise there is still some way to go until BSL is equal under the law. I am firmly of the belief that the only way to give the deaf community the equality and recognition they deserve is to bring a BSL Act before Parliament.
I have always said that equality is equality, you cannot pick and choose. Fighting for the rights of one group does not take away from the rights of others. That is why we should all fight for equality for deaf and hard of hearing people as hard as any other person or group in society.
Following my signed question in the Commons last year asking the government to introduce a BSL Act, the government failed to act. So we, the Labour Party, demonstrated our clear support for the deaf community and our intention to take the next step. Our 2017 manifesto contained a clear commitment to introduce a BSL Act in Parliament and give it full legal status.
A BSL Act would give it the same status as other languages in the UK, ensuring that BSL is protected. More information and services could be produced in BSL, therefore giving equal access. And it could put BSL on the national curriculum and ensure that it is offered in schools, as other languages are, to enable BSL users to access education in their first language.
As Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, I spoke on behalf of the Opposition in an important debate in Parliament just weeks ago on that very issue, after my friend, the campaigner and TV presenter Wayne Barrow whose parents are profoundly deaf put forward a successful petition on the issue.
Yet it was a shame that on a day when history was made at the Oscars, with The Silent Child winning best live action short film and actress Rachel Shenton using sign language in her acceptance speech, the government failed to take the simple step of accepting BSL as a GCSE qualification.
I have seen first-hand the difference it would make for young BSL users. St Michael’s Nursery in Brent are unique in that they teach their children, aged four and five, sign language. I hope more schools will follow their example and teach basic sign language. It is so important for deaf and hard of hearing people to learn in their preferred language.
While the government fails to act, I know BSL users will not give up the fight for equality. So following on from Sign Language Week I hope people across the country will join me in calling for a BSL Act to enshrine the rights of BSL users into law, and join the charities and businesses across the UK in raising awareness of the importance of BSL. Deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK deserve better treatment and better services in society, so it’s about time we deliver it.
Dawn Butler is the Labour MP for Brent Central and shadow women and equalities secretary