Signature has called on the government to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of British Sign Language (BSL) and establish a BSL Commissioner.
The call was made in evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and disability.
A commissioner would promote and facilitate the use of BSL so it is treated equally with English. They would make sure public and private organisations meet their legal obligations under the European Charter, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act with respect to BSL and the people who use it.
Jim Edwards, chief executive of Signature, said: "We have called for a commissioner because we don't think any new laws are needed. Discrimination on the grounds of disability is prohibited by the Equality Act. And discrimination on the basis of language is prohibited by the Human Rights Act.
"The problem is, these legal mechanisms aren't accessible because of the time and money it takes to bring a case. In the face of discrimination, people whose first or only language is BSL are effectively left to fend for themselves.
"A commissioner would help them challenge discrimination. And they would help us spread the word that BSL is a language like any other.
"BSL is as important to the cultural heritage of the UK as Cornish or any other indigenous language. It's time that was recognised."
Full text of Signature's evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and disability
1. This evidence concerns the effectiveness of the Equality Act in eliminating discrimination against people who are deaf, deafblind or have a hearing loss and whose only or main language is British Sign Language (BSL).
2. Signature is a charity that campaigns to improve the quality of communication between hearing and deaf and deafblind people in the UK. We are the leading awarding body for nationally recognised qualifications in BSL and other deaf communications. We regulate communication and language professionals via the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD).
3. The issue of access to education, employment, health, information and services in BSL concerns both disability and language. BSL arose as a form of communication between people who are now deemed to have a protected characteristic. But it is also a language of a cultural and linguistic minority.
4. BSL is indigenous to the UK. It is the only or main language of thousands of people. Numbers vary; 15,000 claimed it as their main language in the 2011 Census but the IPSOS Mori GP Patient Survey 2009/10 estimated 125,000 adults and 20,000 children.
5. Despite this, the government has not ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of BSL. It has done so for Cornish, which less than a thousand people claimed as their first language in the 2011 Census.
6. People whose only or main language is BSL continue to be treated less favourably than people whose main or only language is English. They are routinely not provided access to public and private services and information in their own language. For example
a. in compiling our evidence for the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s 2014 inquiry into voter engagement in the UK, we found there was no information in BSL about voting on any of the websites of the political parties, the Electoral Commission or Parliament;
b. of the 878 videos on the NHS Choices website, around one per cent are available in BSL and very little of the information on gov.uk is available in BSL;
c. whilst an increasing number of companies provide customer services in BSL via video relay, and contactScotland has opened up Scottish public services to BSL users, there are currently no UK Government services that provide access in BSL; and
d. reports such as Sick Of It by SignHealth highlight this discrimination and its negative impact on the person, public services and wider society.
7. Such discrimination is illegal under the Equality Act as someone who is deaf, deafblind or has a significant hearing loss is considered to be disabled. But the Human Rights Act also prohibits discrimination on the grounds of language.
8. Whilst people whose only or main language is BSL are able to challenge such discrimination via various legal mechanisms, in practice they are not accessible due to the time and money it takes to bring a case. In the face of discrimination they are effectively left to fend for themselves.
9. However, the situation is improving. For example, the recently published NHS England accessible information standard, which comes into force in July 2016, requires all providers of NHS and publicly funded adult social are to proactively identify, record, keep updated, flag and meet the communication needs of patients and service users (and carers and parents) who are disabled or have a sensory loss.
10. We therefore do not think any new legal mechanisms are required to challenge this discrimination. They already exist and are slowly leading to positive change. But something is needed to increase the pace of that change.
11. The government should
a. ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of BSL; and
b. establish a British Sign Language Commissioner to promote and facilitate the use of BSL so it is treated equally with English, with a role in making sure public and private organisations meet their legal obligations under the European Charter, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act with respect to BSL and the people who use it.