by Graham Turner
On a most extraordinary afternoon last week (17th September 2015, a date to be remembered), it seemed that half of Heriot-Watt’s Department of Languages & Intercultural Studies re-located to the Scottish Parliament for a few hours. Why? It was the Stage 3 (final) reading in the chamber of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill.
The Bill passed with unanimous support from the assembled Members of the Scottish Parliament, and will be fully ratified following Royal Assent in 4-8 weeks’ time.
We can state it dispassionately in the clear light of a later week, but this was anything but a calm and sober occasion. For evidence, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u61__M7dUS4. You can watch the whole debate from about 1:03:00. But you really only need to see the audience reaction to the final vote (from about 2:35:00) to get a feel for the electrifying nature of the moment.
You could ask any one of LINCS’ eight British Sign Language (BSL) staff members, or our six research students, or indeed any of the 60-odd undergraduate students now enrolled in years 1-4 of our honours degree programme, and they would be able to tell you why this was such a momentous day for the BSL community.
You can read, or watch in BSL, a perspective about the thinking behind the Bill from Heriot-Watt’s Professor Graham Turner (published last year to encourage engagement with the first draft of the Bill) here: http://limpingchicken.com/2014/12/05/turner-bsl-bill/.
There’s an excellent blog summarising what the Bill does (and doesn’t do) here: http://bristol.verbeeld.be/2015/09/17/british-sign-language-scotland-bill-passed-final-hurdle/. It is designed to create an ongoing framework for national planning around BSL which will lead to continuous, incremental improvement in the way BSL is protected and, crucially, promoted across Scottish public life. The community’s priorities will need to be elicited and sustainably enacted: some future scenarios are contained in evidence (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_EducationandCultureCommittee/BSL%20Bill/TurnerProfessorGHHeriotWattUniversity.pdf) sent from Heriot-Watt to the Parliamentary committee which reviewed the Bill.
You can see from sources like this http://scotlandfutureforum.org/assets/library/files/application/BSL_Report.pdf that Heriot-Watt has championed this cause from the front since at least 2010. In fact, five years’ campaigning doesn’t even scratch the surface of the deep and painful history that underpins last week’s success. Heriot-Watt BSL staff can tell you story after story after story of friends, family and colleagues who have lived and died in pursuit of proper respect and recognition for BSL.
As Avril Hepner, the British Deaf Association’s Community Development Manager in Scotland, told Parliament in her evidence before the Bill passed, this legislation finally enables BSL users to feel that they belong in Scotland, and Scotland belongs to them along with everyone else.
Scotland therefore becomes the only part of the United Kingdom to secure legal recognition of BSL to date. Needless to say, campaigners everywhere will be encouraging Westminster to follow Scotland’s lead, and Heriot-Watt staff will be fully engaged in supporting their efforts.
So if you see a BSL user anywhere in the UK in the next wee while with a huge, undimmable grin on their face – you now know why. This is huge. Shake their hand.