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An estimated 151,000 people in the UK use British Sign Language (BSL) and 87,000 of these are deaf. The figures come from the British Deaf Association (BDA) charity which has published a factsheet with information on BSL. BDA describes sign languages as:
[…] “fully functional and expressive languages; at the same time, they differ profoundly from spoken languages. BSL is a visual-sign language with a distinctive grammar using hand shapes, facial expressions, gestures and body language to convey meaning.
BDA writes that BSL is distinct from spoken English and is used primarily in Britain. Other English-speaking countries have their own sign languages. Irish Sign Language (ISL) is used in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and American Sign Language (ASL) is used in the United States.
When reading about BSL, it is common to come across the distinction Deaf with a capital D and deaf. Charity SignHealth explains the reason for the accolade:
“The word deaf is used to describe or identify anyone who has a serious hearing problem. Sometimes it is also used to refer to people who are very hard of hearing.
We use Deaf with a capital D to refer to people who have been deaf all their lives, or since before they started learning to speak. They are pre-lingually deaf. This is an important distinction, as deaf people tend to communicate in sign language as their first language. For most deaf people, English is a second language and understanding complicated messages in English can be a problem.
There is a very strong and close deaf community with its own culture and sense of identity, based on a common language.
The 2011 Scottish Census asked for the first time the question “Do you use a language other than English at home?” » The results are analyzed in the publication 2011 Census Equality Results: Analysis Part Two, which includes a section on BSL users.. Based on the responses, the publication says that it is estimated that around 12,500 people in Scotland use BSL at home, making 24 BSL users per 10,000 people. The 2022 Scottish Census will ask “Can you use BSL?” for the first time.
BSL was recognized as a minority language by the UK government in 2003, however, Scotland is so far the only country in the UK to have recognized BSL in law. The BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 made it a legal obligation for the Scottish Government and public bodies to promote and facilitate the promotion of the use and understanding of BSL. It became mandatory to produce a plan to describe how this would be done.
Scottish Government National Plan
The National BSL Plan 2017-2023 outlines the Scottish Government’s strategy to support BSL in Scotland. The plan covers the Scottish Government as well as over 50 national public bodies for which Scottish Ministers are responsible. The intentions of the BSL national plan are expressed in the executive summary:
“The Scottish Government wants to make Scotland the best place in the world for BSL users to live, work and visit. This means that people whose first or preferred language is BSL will be fully involved in everyday and public life in Scotland, as active and healthy citizens, and able to make informed choices about all aspects of their lives.
Other public bodies such as local authorities, NHS regional councils, colleges/universities and the Scottish Parliament have had to produce their own plans.
The BSL National Plan set 10 long-term goals for BSL in Scotland and listed 70 actions for the Scottish Government to take by 2020 in its work in this regard.
National plan: progress report
British Sign Language – national plan: progress report was published in October 2021 (delayed from its original publication date by the COVID-19 pandemic). It highlights progress in education, interpretation, pandemic response, public life and society. Government says highlights include live BSL interpretation at the Scottish Government’s daily coronavirus briefings and the doubling of the number of local authorities that have schools that offer BSL as an additional second language .
The report concludes with the government’s view that BSL’s profile has been significantly raised in Scotland. But he also notes that many action points are still outstanding or incomplete and that the Scottish Government will work to resolve them.
Scottish Parliament BSL map
The Scottish Parliament’s own British Sign Language Plan 2018-2024 has resulted in an increase in the information available in BSL. Prime Ministers’ Questions and selected debates are interpreted live and available on Parliament TV’s BSL channel. The Scottish Parliament’s BSL Development Officer leads the implementation of the BSL Plan, working closely with all offices of Parliament to raise awareness and develop services for BSL visitors and the wider BSL community. It is also the main point of contact between Parliament and the BSL user communities, and produces a regular BSL e-newsletter with updates on parliamentary business.
Resources for public bodies
The Scottish Government website BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 at updates on the work being done by public bodies to support the use of the BSL and includes links to a range of BSL resources.
The Scottish Parliament’s BSL Development Officer can be contacted by email: [email protected]
Lena Phalen, Intelligence Officer
With my thanks to
Mark McMillan, BSL Development Officer
Image source: SPICE