New legislation marks historic moment for deaf community in Scotland

Heather Gray

Heather Gray, National Deaf Children’s Society Director (Scotland & Northern Ireland)

What does the newly passed British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill mean for deaf children and their families? Heather Gray, Director for NDCS Scotland and Northern Ireland blogged for Third Force News last week and shared her views…

The Scottish Parliament is to be congratulated on voting to pass the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill into law last week on Thursday 17 September 2015.

The passage of the Bill marks an historic moment for the entire deaf community across Scotland, many of whom have British Sign Language (BSL) as their first or preferred language.

By ensuring public authorities promote and raise awareness of BSL, the Bill –  the first of its kind in the UK – will help to embed the language more fully into Scottish society and culture.  And the provision for BSL users to be consulted on the development of public bodies’ BSL plans should stimulate real debate about how best to meet their needs.

The National Deaf Children’s Society hopes this ground-breaking legislation will become a foundation for the promotion of the language in Scotland long into the future. We strongly believe that if fully implemented the Bill will ultimately help create more choices and opportunities for deaf children and young people and help them achieve their full potential.

There are as many as 3850 deaf children and young people in Scotland. While there is a lack of national data about their language preferences, a survey of local authorities suggests around 15% use sign language in some way.

There can be real challenges in meeting the unique needs these deaf children and young people who use British Sign Language. With only around 80 qualified interpreters across Scotland and a lack of a robust qualifications framework, consistent access to high quality communication support can be challenging.

The Scottish Government is to be commended for its acknowledgement of these challenges in its support for the Bill and its investment in online translation service Contact Scotland. The challenge is now for them to set out an ambitious National Plan that will drive progress for deaf children and their families.

Deaf young people and their families have told us what they think should be in the National BSL Plan, including:

  • Closing the education attainment gap for deaf learners, as highlighted in the recent Inquiry undertaken by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee;
  • Establishing and regulating a qualifications framework for communication support in education;
  • Establishing BSL as an accredited school qualification within the modern languages curriculum, via the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework;
  • Improving the availability of early years support, so that deaf children have the best start in life.  This includes improving the availability of family Sign Language courses, which help hearing parents communicate with their deaf child.

Achieving real inclusion for the deaf community will take time, investment and strong national and local leadership. However, the BSL Bill is a welcome significant step forward in this journey. It provides us with an enabling framework that could ultimately lead to more effective service provision, better opportunities, and improved life chances for deaf children and young people across Scotland.