Deaf News: Deaf organisations push for better access to democracy for sign language users

Posted on May 7, 2014

Organisations working for and with deaf people have told MPs that voting and elections are not accessible to people whose first language is British Sign Language (BSL).

In a submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s inquiry into voter engagement in the UK, the nine charities, including Signature, BDA, Action on Hearing Loss and Action Deafness drew attention to the lack of information available in BSL.

Dan Sumners

Dan Sumners

There is no information available in BSL on the Electoral Commission or About My Vote websites. Nor are there any BSL videos on any of the websites of the political parties represented in the UK Parliament.

The group asked the Committee to recommend all online information about elections and voting be made available in BSL. They also said all television programming related to elections and voting should be signed and subtitled.

Dan Sumners, Senior Policy Adviser at Signature, said: “Whilst BSL was officially recognised as a full, independent language by the government in 2003, it seems little action has been taken to make sure BSL users can fully participate in the democratic process.

“Taking part in elections and voting is the basis of democracy. Anyone who is effectively barred from doing so doesn’t have a voice in the running of the country.

“But everyone loses out. Fewer people voting and standing in elections means a less representative government. Less diversity in the electorate and political parties may mean a less inclusive society.

“As we say in the submission, disabled people make up 17 per cent of the population. If more of them were MPs, perhaps more would be done to make sure everyone has equal access to opportunities.”

“BSL isn’t related to English or any other spoken languages, as recognised by the Office for Disability Issues on its website. So whilst making sure written information is accessible is a good start, it doesn’t provide equal access for people whose first language is BSL. It’s equivalent to arguing plain English is accessible for someone who was brought up speaking only Welsh.

“Without that information in their own language, BSL users aren’t able to fully participate and contribute as equal and valued citizens. They are less likely to know how to register and when to vote. They are less able to make an informed decision.”

Deaf people welcomed the submission to MPs. Merfyn Williams, a sign language user from London, says he has experienced barriers when trying to communicate with his local MP and council. Does he think BSL users have been excluded from the democratic process?

“Yes definitely. I once had to make a submission to my local council but wasn’t allowed to do it in sign language. It had to be in their language.

“I had no information how the process works and they didn’t provide communication support for me to understand the democratic process so I learnt the hard way. I had to write papers in ‘their’ language to be presented, because you cannot do it in BSL video and that should be questioned why not?

“In debate they speak academic language and if you don’t know the process or the spoken English language then you lose the senses of the process – even with having a BSL interpreter this can be difficult because the signers need advance information.”

“Any BSL videos made  are a good idea but should be subtitled too.”


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