“We want more than an Act of Parliament” says Sarah Batterbury, BDA expert

Posted on March 12, 2014


Next week the BDA (British Deaf Association) launch Sign Language Week with the theme of ‘Strengthening Our Rights’. Planned to coincide with the anniversary of the official recognition of British Sign Language in 2003, a range of activities are planned including Deaf Lobby Day, where deaf people will meet MPs in Westminster Hall and the release of a report which looks at the legal status of BSL and its users.

The legal status of BSL users has come under heightened focus in the last year with the formation of internet groups and higher profile political campaigns. Sarah Batterbury, a former lecturer at Bristol University’s now closed Centre for Deaf Studies, has been tasked with compiling the report which is aimed at persuading politicians and law makers to create legislation which enhances Deaf people’s rights and culture.

“The aim is to present a report to government about the need for giving Deaf people legal status which would include the creation of a BSL or ISL (Irish Sign Language) Act.” she told me.

“There is a lot of confusion around terminology here. An act in other countries can be a very simple piece of legislation which says ‘we legally recognise this language’ but doesn’t actually say what it intends to do. So that’s then followed by a vast suite of legislation for Deaf education or for free sign language classes for parents of Deaf children or better access to healthcare.”

“We’re asking for legal status for BSL and ISL, the two sign languages in the United Kingdom. This is irrespective of what’s going on in Scotland with the BSL Bill that Mark Griffin MSP is working on so this is UK focused. It’s aimed at Westminster.”

The report will include evidence from Deaf people across the UK. While there are differences in emphasis in different places; Scotland has emphasised culture, history and education and London on healthcare,  however common themes have emerged.

Sarah said. “One that has come out of this that is really important –  one message that really needs hammering home to government – is that the main form of equality legislation in Great Britain is The  Equality Act 2010 and it doesn’t work.”

“The Government will say, you know, you have the Equality Act so you have equal rights but the research we have done shows that the Equality Act is not working at all. Its not delivering healthcare; Its not delivering equal treatment in prisons or access to justice nor to dispensing justice like on a jury. Its not delivering civil rights and its not delivering adequate educational outcomes at school leaving age either.”

Sarah Batterbury

Sarah Batterbury

“The BDA is aiming this report at policy makers and government to pitch for a change. We have a number of case studies from published information in the media, The Spit The Dummy group and legal cases that have gone to court or arbitration. There is lots of evidence.”

For those who are well versed in Deaf issues, much of the evidence will come as no surprise, but for many the extent to which Deaf people are denied their civil rights will be shocking. Its those examples that Sarah hopes will spur politicians into action.

“Some of the shocking case studies include the suicide of a Deaf prisoner and in healthcare, surgery without informed consent due to failure to provide interpreters and  misdiagnoses of dementia. We have cases of young deaf people in mainstream school being routinely asked to interpret in classes, which is basically unpaid forced child labour, and that is a detriment to the child’s own education.”

While the focus for much of the recent campaigning has been around access to services, like healthcare and education, there is another side the report that Sarah feels it is important to bring to greater attention: Deaf Culture.

Deaf students march to County Hall to mark 10 years of BSL recognition “The thing is that BSL is not just a communication tool, it is a language in its own right and we have known that since the 90’s. The whole Deaf culture and heritage issue is really important. It’s the ability for Deaf people to self-actualise and be themselves in their own Deaf space or culture without feeling that they really ought to be a hearing person. It is important that Deaf people can just be themselves.”

“We ask that any BSL legislation promotes some of the cultural dimensions of the language because that is really important to the individual and to the collective cultural development and reconstruction.”

“Also that legislation is bought into address the failures of the Equality Act which are completely unacceptable and we will make the case that in an advanced democratic civilised society, Deaf people are being treated as a kind of underclass; second class citizens and that this is just unacceptable. It is unacceptable to have people dying in hospital beds just because people didn’t realise that they were deaf.”

The UK lags behind countries like New Zealand, Finland, Austria and Hungary when it comes to rights and cultural respect for Deaf people; but the desired changes may still take decades to come to fruition. Sarah tells me that Deaf people in other countries have had to wait 15 to 20 years for Governments to respond with specific legislation.

Campaigners felt as though the official recognition of British Sign Language in 2003 was a success but seen through the prism of history, Deaf people now can see that maybe they were sold short and that’s something Sarah is keen shouldn’t happen again. Even an act of Parliament itself probably won’t be enough.

“The £1.5m the government paid out in 2003 was a cop-out to keep organisations quiet. It was never going to work. It was peanuts really and spread between ten different organisations so no use whatsoever. It was never going to achieve anything and had no focus. We want proper reform.”

“We want more than just an act of Parliament. We want a public review of the social injustice caused by failure of the Equality Act. Reform of the Equality Act and a new Act which recognises legally the status of British and Irish Sign Languages.”

Further information on Sign Language Week, the Symposium and Deaf Lobby Day can be found here.

By Andy Palmer, Deputy Editor. Andy volunteers for the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society on their website, deaf football coaching and other events. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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Posted in: Andy Palmer