Signature has welcomed the introduction of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill as a solid foundation on which the UK can build recognition of the language.
Responding to the Scottish Parliament’s call for evidence, Signature said the Bill was needed to make government responsible for fulfilling its legal obligations.
Jim Edwards, chief executive of Signature, said: “Currently, if someone can’t access a service in BSL the individual has to take legal action under the Equality Act 2010. Given the difficulty BSL users have accessing services, education and employment, that simply isn’t good enough.
“By requiring the Scottish Government, local authorities and others to publish plans for promoting BSL and making services more accessible, we think this Bill will make a difference. More people will know they should be able to access services in BSL, and government will become used to delivering them in BSL.
“A change in the law will also send the message that access in BSL is not solely a disability issue but also one of equality. Many deaf people whose first language is BSL do not consider themselves disabled but a member of a linguistic and cultural minority.
“Of course, there’s a way to go before the Bill becomes law. And whilst it could be stronger – ultimately we want the UK Government to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of BSL and give it formal legal recognition – the fact it has been introduced is a long overdue step in the right direction.”
Signature sounded one note of caution about unintended consequences for other languages and forms of communication used by deaf people.
Jim Edwards said: “Apart from the fact other sign languages are used in the British Isles, such as Irish Sign Language, the majority of deaf people do not use sign language.
“People who are deaf, deafblind, deafened or hard of hearing may use lipspeaking, notes, sign supported English, English, sign language or a combination in order to communicate. It’s important a piece of positive legislation does not overshadow the needs of another section of the population.
“However, if implemented well, the legislation will be an opportunity to raise the profile of the problems deaf people face as a result of being excluded. When they are considering how to deliver their services in BSL, authorities could also consider the extent to which they provide access for deaf people as a whole.”
Signature also felt there needed to be greater accountability at the local level, which would benefit the deaf community and public authorities.
Jim Edwards said: “The aim of the Bill is to promote the use of BSL and increase access to public services. Local authorities and others with clear regional or local constituencies should therefore be accountable to people who use BSL.
“That accountability will not only make sure authorities are held to account, it will encourage the development of local relationships with the BSL using and wider deaf community. That will help authorities develop their plans and make sure they respond to local need.”