Is the number of signers lower than previously thought? Census records 22,000 sign language users

Posted on January 30, 2013

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.

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Posted in: deaf news