Spitting the Dummy at Government Inaction

Records of British Sign Language may date back to the 16th century, but it took until 18th March 2003 for formal governmental recognition to be secured for the language anywhere in the UK. Ten years later, many Deaf (and hearing) people – including Heriot-Watt’s staff and students with an interest in this community – are asking what this ‘recognition’ really meant.

Dissatisfied with a decade’s uncertain progress, pressure is mounting for renewed attention to the issue. An Early Day Motion (EDM) is currently being promoted at Westminster – thanks in particular to the efforts of the Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Bruce, Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon – seeking to secure greater attention to BSL at UK government level. Over 100 MPs have so far signed. As Malcolm Bruce, whose daughter Caroline was born deaf 30 years ago, acknowledges,

“Sign language is a vibrant language used by tens of thousands of deaf people yet British Sign Language does not enjoy the degree of support that is provided for Gaelic and Welsh or even the foreign languages of our immigrant communities. With the service of interpreters profoundly deaf people can engage much more fully in work and society. If we can give support to deaf parents and their children to learn and use BSL and provide access to video relay services (providing video links to interpreters anytime anywhere) and teach BSL as a foreign language we will not only keep this part of our culture alive but really enhance the quality of life for deaf people.”

LINCS, of course, offers the UK’s only undergraduate degree  from which successful graduates will emerge as fully qualified BSL interpreters.

Harnessing the power of social media to unite the geographically diffuse Deaf community, a UK-wide Facebook group has been established to help campaign for enhanced recognition of BSL: in a few short weeks, this group pulled together over 11,000 members (a startling figure, when you appreciate that there are fewer than 100,000 BSL users in the UK – it’s as if six million people suddenly joined the Queens English Society). The group has a startling name – ‘Spit the Dummy’ – a reference to the community’s sense that the recognition of BSL secured in 2003 was actually an empty, meaningless pacifier, which has led to minimal gains in subsequent years. The sense of frustration at those 10 lost years is what has ignited the current action.

Heriot-Watt staff are active along with others in promoting the EDM, and have received positive feedback from two local MPs who are keen to take a greater interest in what we do. An Early Day Motion will certainly not be enough to wrest a bolder response from the UK parliament, yet other linguistic communities near and far have achieved real political successes along these lines – so what do you think needs to happen next?#

Author: Graham Turner