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A BSL Act: to do or not to do, that is the question

Last night I posted my thoughts on Twitter (@Deaf) about any current campaign for a BSL Act, as well as discussion with a few people. This blog post is a fuller explanation of those comments.

Personally I think there is only one way to get a BSL Act on the government agenda at the minute, that's through compliance of the UN Convention on the Rights of Person's with Disabilities (UNCRPD). That's it. Any campaign for a BSL Act as stand alone, is probably going to fail and you will be banging your head against a brick wall, years from now. My only exception to this thought: unless of course the Liberal Democrats use their clout in government to push such an Act through on the basis of their own party policy (I am not hopeful).

We are currently living in times of austerity, people are fighting to keep existing services - schools, libraries and the NHS for starters. Many people are being driven into poverty, disabled people are taking a particularly hard hit with the cutbacks in services. There are many people out there who have had their benefits cut and are not in a position to find work, they are having to fight the system just to try and survive. You can be ideological all you like but this is the reality for many people out there. Furthermore, people are finding it challenging to find work, due to the numbers in the job market. Deaf people are probably being discriminated against all the more, due to numbers and people know how to play the Equality Act. My point is: this mainstream reality.

In Wales we have been fortunate to further strengthen language rights, the Welsh Government passed the Welsh Language Measure 2011. It was able to do this as a devolved government and the primary legislation was already there, the Welsh Language Act 1993; Welsh is an established recognised language and it is geographically linked. We do not have these advantages for BSL, at least yet.

Given all the above, this is me being pragmatic (practical) about what can done right now. The UK has ratified the UNCRPD in June 2009. Whilst most of the UNCRPD is applicable to deaf people, there are some very specific Articles which make express reference to sign language:

Article 2 - Definitions
"For the purposes of the present Convention: ... "Language" includes spoken and signed languages and other forms of non spoken languages;

Article 9 - Accessibility
"2. States Parties shall also take appropriate measures:
e) To provide forms of live assistance and intermediaries, including guides, readers and professional sign language interpreters, to facilitate accessibility to buildings and other facilities open to the public;"

Article 21 - Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information
"States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice, as defined in article 2 of the present Convention, including by:
b) Accepting and facilitating the use of sign languages, Braille, augmentative and alternative communication, and all other accessible means, modes and formats of communication of their choice by persons with disabilities in official interactions;"

Article 24 - Education
"3. States Parties shall enable persons with disabilities to learn life and social development skills to facilitate their full and equal participation in education and as members of the community. To this end, States Parties shall take appropriate measures, including:
b) Facilitating the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community;"

Article 30 - Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport

"4. Persons with disabilities shall be entitled, on an equal basis with others, to recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic identity, including sign languages and deaf culture."

The language above is broad. How it can be interpreted by one person, does not necessarily the same for another. So a government person could read any of the above and say, "Hey, we meet those!" and a citizen could come to a very different conclusion. Take Article 24 which relates to education. Here the government could say it complies because we have law around non discrimination in education, we have deaf schools, in the classroom we have Learning Support Assistants. I can guarantee every single Deaf person out there would reach a very different conclusion to that, based on their experiences.

The government has to write a report to the UN every three years, to show compliance. As we saw in the previous paragraph, interpretation can be subjective. What about accountability to the people who it really matters? This is where something called parallel reporting comes in. A parallel report is a report that is submitted along with (parallel) any report from the government by organisations of disabled (deaf) people. This promotes accountability. Note: the UN needs as few parallel reports as possible, otherwise things get very muddled. The point is you feed into an organisation OF and they act as a respondent agent.

The last time all this happened was in June 2011, so the next chance to do this is likely to be June 2014 - just over a year from now. That gives people a chance to collate all those stories (they are examples) of how the system is not working. When you have done that, to use them as examples to apply to the above Articles (plus others, that don't make specific reference to sign language but still apply). Within this, those examples should serve as to why the Equality Act is not working, the shortcomings of education and so forth. From that, this can act as justification that the current system is not enough. Why we badly need a BSL Act. You have to look at the UNCRPD as your clout to get the BSL Act, thus the need to jump through the hoops to play the system's game. To do this, you MUST engage in parallel reporting.

It should be noted, the next parallel reports from organisations of disabled people (if they are in touch with reality) are probably going to focus on poverty and basic rights. The reality is, people are suggesting disabled people are dying out there as a result of current government cuts. So the right of life is probably going to overshadow anything else. However, sign language is very clearly included in the UNCRPD so it should have some attention. People need to put a very strong and clear case forward.

For those of you who are interested, the current country reports are here. These reports then go before a UN committee, which examines compliance. The next session of this committee happens to be July 2013. Whether it works or not, depends on your perspective of international law and politics (no doubt WFD in particular will have its own view). Governments do have to maintain face on the international stage, however, how much they do this is open for debate. I am not going to analyse that any further here, as I want to keep this post focused on a possible mechanism to use in a time when it is very difficult to get anything.

Side note: I do not make the above suggestions lightly and I am not traditionally one for compromise when it comes to campaigning for rights. For those of you who do not know me well, I led on policy for FDP from Autumn 1999 until 2002 Up until 2000, FDP was campaigning for BSL recognition under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. I pushed for a shift in tactics because the ECRML comes under the Council of Europe (not the same as the European Union) and subject to the relationship of international law. Secondly, I come from a first language Welsh speaking family and I also remember the protests around language rights growing up.

For me, a BSL Act was a natural course that we should go down, which is why I spent so much time in 2000 researching legal foundations. I spent many hours at the weekend at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth (I was working full time in London), researching the legal framework for Welsh. I was very grateful for Doug's vision and guidance, people can say whatever they like about him but you cannot fault him on his vision. He was very clear about the separation of language issues from disability, a Home Office route, plus the practicalities such as BSL recognition is not about interpreters. I wrote FDP's submission to the DRC in 2000 (including in the US, when I was supposed to be spending time with my family). FDP was the only organisation that called for a BSL Act in the face of everyone else arguing for something much weaker. I get it re campaigning for a BSL Act, I witnessed many people around me including my friends give all they had and take to the streets.

So my suggestion around the UNCRPD is not made lightheartedly. Campaigning under any government is hard work, nevermind one hellbent on austerity. I could be wrong, whatever way, I hope people succeed and build on the shoulders of those before you.

To a new generation of activists: I am particularly pleased native BSL users are leading a campaign, it is about ownership. Hang onto that passion, it is important. However, this game is a long one, people are going to burn out (many of us have been there, got the t-shirt) and when you've banged your head against that brick wall for the umpteenth time for an issue you believe strongly in, it drains you. There is plenty of knowledge out there, tap into it - it can only empower you. You might end up in a battle with organisations, ultimately they need funding to survive and this is not necessarily mean the protection of BSL in law. (It happened nationally in 2003 plus the funding in Wales). Yes you need funding to enforce rights but it should not be project driven. If there is money involved, there will be many people like a bull in a china shop after it. You'll just be standing outside watching it, people will not even acknowledge you whilst charging in. At that point the all nighters you pulled, the money spent out of your own pocket, the family holidays you sacrified, the fact you might have got arrested, the amount your backside froze whilst sitting on a wet road - no-one will remember it. You might not even recognise these organisations or what became of your campaign. Be prepared for that.

To deaf organisations: you really need to start listening ground up (not repeating history), respect activists and get away from the suit bubble otherwise your campaign is never going to be community owned. Anything else starts to resemble a circus and amounts to plastic activists. And can ordinary people have rights and protection, please? Ultimately it is good you are able to return to this and finish the job off.

To everyone: there were many people out there who were instrumental to previous campaigning, listen to them and learn from their experience. Not everyone will have the same narrative but each person carries wisdom. Otherwise it is going to be a case of re-inventing the wheel and repeating mistakes. That's where I'm coming from, take it or leave it as you will.

Facebook: Spit the Dummy Group
BDA Livestreaming, BSL Recognition the Way Ahead
House of Commons Early Day Motion 1167: 10th Anniversary of Recognition of British Sign Language
BDA: Get your MP to sign EDM 1167 to support BSL users
Deaf Heritage - Jen Dodds - FDP Campaign for BSL Recognition
TigerDeafie: Ten years on: from BSL recogition to ‘Spit the Dummy’
BSL ‘recognition’ – ten years on

Comments (4)

Excellent article well done Alison

Thanks for the informative article and save me trouble for the my prep for the appiontment with my MP, later this month!

This post is fantastic, I hope you will be invited to share your work towards a BSL Act; we need specifics; golden rule of campaigning: campaign for what can be put into practice. Here you have the start of what that can be.

This is great - and so necessary to nail down the details, rather than just waffling about what 'might be'... Let's, at least, see this debated.

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