The second reading of the British Sign Language Bill is due before the House of Commons on Friday, 28thJanuary 2022. In preparation for that, the BSL Bill has been made available to the public. I have had a look at the Bill, and noted some specific concerns and points of interest.
A Lack of Rights
The first thing which I notice is that the Bill creates no rights for BSL users. There is no entitlements to use the language, say with public authorities. There is no right to be educated in BSL, or to have access to BSL education for family members of Deaf people. There is no restatement of a right to use BSL in courts, as can be seen in the Irish Sign Langauge Act in Ireland. The BSL Bill is similar to the BSL (Scotland) Act and to the Sign Language Act in Finland in the sense that there are no rights for individual Deaf people, BSL-users or the Deaf and BSL-using community. For example, Section 2.3 of the BSL Bill specifically removes ‘communications with individual members of the public’ from the meaning of ‘relevant government department’s communication with the public’. The Bill does not prevent people from using BSL with a public authority. But it also does not requirepublic authorities specifically to facilitate the use of BSL with individuals.
Where are the BSL users?
I am certain that BSL users will attest to finding it difficult to engage with public authorities in BSL. Having a law which affirms the rights of BSL users to use their language in such instances places legislative weight behind that act, and an obligation onto authorities to facilitate the use of BSL. It also potentially creates sanctions for a failure to abide by the law. When BSL services are not provided, there is recourse then for people who have been wronged. However this has been left out of the Bill. Additionally, placing rights in the hands of Deaf people and BSL users centres the individuals and the community in the Bill. At present, BSL is discussed in the Bill in isolation to the community and BSL-users themselves. There is no mention of Deaf people. There is no mention of a Deaf Community. There is no mention of culture. BSL (or any language, for that matter) does not exist separate to the people who use the language. The Bill, however, has no connection to people who use BSL.
Culture and Language Rights
Certainly, there are rights afforded to BSL users under the Equality Act 2010. However, the framing of those rights in the context of disability (and the duty to make adjustments for disabled people, for example) has the potential to be limiting. Where allowances such as BSL interpreters, are connected to disability, rather than to the expression of a linguistic culture, there is the potential to assess the need for BSL services on the medical severity of a person’s level of hearing. For example, if a person can also communicate using spoken English, but where their preferred communication method is BSL, and where they identify as a BSL-user or Deaf person, it might be deemed unreasonable in that instance to provide BSL interpretation. This can be seen in the availability of sign language services in Finland, where sign language usage is linked to a medical understanding of necessity. Under Finnish law, sign language users are not positioned as a linguistic and cultural minority, as user of other minority languages are (for example, Swedish speakers).
The BSL Bill places no real obligation on any public authorities to actually provide for BSL usage. The language used in the Bill is of ‘promotion’ and ‘facilitation’. There is no requirement, and no apparent sanction under this Bill for a failure to comply with the promotion and facilitation of BSL usage.
It is also worth noting that the scope of the Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland, where linguistic issues are a devolved matter. In addition, Irish Sign Language would presumably also need to be covered in any legislation recognising sign language in Northern Ireland, as both BSL and ISL are used there.
British Sign Language Council
The BSL Bill mentions in its long title about the establishment of a British Sign Language Council. However, there is no other mention of such a Council in the body of the Bill. It is unclear from reading the Bill, what this Council would consist of, or how it would operate. In the Explanatory Note, however, it is stated that:
The long title of the Bill provides that a ‘British Sign Language Council (is established) to promote and advise on the use of British Sign Language’. It is the intention of the Department for Work and Pensions to establish a non-statutory board.
Still, it remains unclear, in the absence of detail, what the function of this council will be.
To summarise, there is no mention of culture, the Deaf Community, or the BSL-using community at all in the BSL Bill. The people are wholly absent from the Bill, which to me, is a stark and blatant omission. If this Bill is not about the people, who is it for? It places no real or realisable requirement on anyone to use BSL, and there are no sanctions under the Bill for any failure to ‘promote’ or ‘facilitate’ BSL. De Meulder has said that the BSL Act in Scotland is all bark and no bite. By comparison, I might suggest that as it currently stands, this Bill has the potential to be not very much bark at all, and certainly no bite.