There has long been a debate about the number of Deaf people whose first or preferred language is sign language the UK.
Depending on which organisation you ask, you might be told 50,000 (Action on Hearing Loss) 70,000 (British Deaf Association) or, according to a survey of GP patients in 2010, 100,000 in England alone.
However, statistics from the 2011 Census revealed today that, in England and Wales, 22,000 people declared that sign language was their first language, with 15,000 of them declaring that this was specifically British Sign Language (BSL).
These statistics are important. And because they suggest that the number of signers may be smaller than previously thought, they have the potential to lead to lower levels of services and resources being provided for Deaf people.
So, has the number of signers been inflated for years, or are these statistics only showing part of the picture?
Three questions spring to mind.
The 2011 Census was the first to ask how many BSL users there are. So, first question – how many Deaf people knew that would be an option? How many people knew they’d be able to make that choice?
Second, there were commendable efforts to make the 2011 Census understood through BSL, but ultimately, not all BSL users are online (especially elderly Deaf people). The Census is a relatively complex form that was English-based – not ideal for BSL users, for whom English is a second language. Should bigger efforts have been made to make the Census accessible?
Third, and this is perhaps the most obvious point, but it’s still worth stating. Many Deaf people use both BSL and English to some degree. Some who would state that their first or preferred language is English may also be sign language users who would need to use sign language in certain situations. They would have been completely left off these results.
The other way of looking at it is that none of the above was a factor, and these stats are right. In which case, there are huge ramifications for many organisations serving Deaf people in the UK.
So which is it? The statistics were only released today, so we’re still waiting for the response of Deaf organisations.
But what do you think? Tell us below.
Please take a moment to check out the sponsors who make this site possible! The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, sign language communications agency Deaf Umbrella, provider of video interpreting services SignVideo, theatre captioning charity STAGETEXT, legal advice charity the RAD Deaf Law Centre, and Remote Captioning provider Bee Communications.
The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.
Please note that the views of the writers are their own, and not necessarily the views of the Editor or site as a whole. Read our disclaimer here.
- Ai-Media: Remote captioning. How to turn on captions on your smartphone
- Bellman & Symfon: home alerting solutions
- Deaf Umbrella: sign language interpreting and communications support
- Appa: Communication services for Deaf, Deafblind and hard of hearing people
- Signature: Find out about the Signature conference here.
- SignVideo: Instant BSL video interpreting online
- 121 Captions: captioning and speech-to-text services
- Hearing Direct: Online hearing aids
- The National Theatre: Captioned and BSL accessible theatre in London
- Doncaster School for the Deaf: education for Deaf children
- SignLive: Online video interpreting for Deaf people
- Royal Shakespeare Company: Captioned and BSL interpreted performances (see dates here)
- Royal School for the Deaf, Derby: Residential education for deaf children
- RAD Tax Advice: Tax and Tax Credit info for Deaf people
- Deaf Independent: Deaf care and support services
- Signworld: online BSL learning and teaching materials
- Performance Interpreting: BSL interpreting at concerts
- National Deaf Children's Society: The leading charity for deaf children
- DCAL: Find out how to study at the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre, London
- cSeeker: Deaf-led educational communication support service
- Signed Culture: Advocating for BSL access to arts and culture
- SignHealth: healthcare charity for Deaf people
- CJ Interpreting: communication support in BSL
- Sign Solutions:, language and learning
- Action Deafness Communications: sign language and Red Dot online video interpreting
- BSLcourses.co.uk: Provider of online BSL courses
- British Society for Mental Health and Deafness: Promoting positive mental health for deaf people
- deafPLUS: Money advice line in BSL
- Hamilton Lodge School in Brighton: education for Deaf children
- Lipspeaker UK: specialist lipspeaking support
- Ozen: Australian hearing aid specialists
- Elmfield School, Bristol: Inclusive education for Deaf pupils
- Exeter Deaf Academy: education for Deaf children