Today, just a few hours ago, the Scottish Parliament passed the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill (which will become an Act after receiving Royal Assent).
With the passing of this Bill, Scotland becomes the first region of the UK where British Sign Language (BSL) is given legal status. The often mentioned 2003 “recognition” of BSL by the UK government was actually merely a statement that BSL is a language in its own right (like all languages are, indeed), and in March 2011, the then Scottish minister of public health made a similar statement, accepting BSL as a language in Scotland. But until today, BSL did not have legal status in any part of the UK. The passing of the BSL Bill is thus a milestone for Scotland and for the UK as a whole.
The Bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament by Member of Scottish Parliament Mark Griffin in October 2014, after two public consultations to gauge support for it and allow different stakeholders access to the decision-making process. In the following months, the Education and Culture Committee of the Parliament scrutinized the Bill, holding three evidence sessions which were live streamed on the Internet, interpreted into BSL and English and provided with captions. During those evidence sessions, BSL signers engaged in direct dialogue with members of the Scottish Parliament. The Parliament not only put in great efforts to make the process accessible for BSL signers, but also to consult with them. In this spirit, they set up a Facebook page in November 2014 to invite BSL signers to share their views on the Bill, in BSL. Hundreds of videos were shared by the group and it has over 2.500 members. In a later stage, proposed amendments were considered (debate again viewable online with BSL and captions) and today, the Bill passed the third and final stage.
Different motivations guided the development of the Bill, the first one being that BSL deserves to be on an equal legal footing with Scotland’s other autochthonous minority languages like Gaelic. Another major motive was the perceived ineffectiveness of existing equality and disability legislation, especially the Equality Act 2010. This legislation was seen as ineffective because it labels deaf people as disabled and tries to fit linguistic issues into legislation that is designed for disability. There also have been problems with the implementation of this legislation and with the very concepts it is based on, eg. reasonable accommodations. Other motives were the deplorable state of deaf education and the absence of educational linguistic rights for deaf children, problematic access to health care and social care for deaf people, and the lack of information for and rights of parents of deaf children. These motives are not unique to Scotland but common motives for sign language recognition legislation (I wrote about this in this upcoming book published by Gallaudet University Press).
The BSL (Scotland) Bill is an example of a “planning-based” model of language planning and language legislation, just like the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act which was passed in 2005. “Planning-based” means that the BSL Bill is based on the development of so-called “BSL plans”, which set out what the Scottish Government and the public authorities listed in the Bill, plan to do in relation to the promotion of BSL. It is important to read that right, “plan to do”, not “do”. The Bill only makes provisions for the publication and review of those plans. It does not state what the plans should include, it does not make provisions for implementation of the plans, and it contains no absolute rights for BSL signers.
The Bill itself is very technical and full of legalese. Below, I will try to explain its aim and provisions in an understandable manner (which will still be technical, I’m sorry!). The full text of the Bill as passed is available here.
In short, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill aims to promote the use and understanding of British Sign Language principally by means of BSL plans, which are to be published by the Scottish Ministers and specified public authorities. Public authorities (or public bodies) are organisations funded by the Scottish Government but not forming part of it. They have far-reaching functions and play an important role in the delivery of public services in Scotland. Their functions range from health and social care to the arts, culture and the built environment. Examples listed in the Bill are the local councils, local health boards under the National Health Service, further and higher education institutions, but also the Scottish Parliament itself, the Scottish Commission for Human Rights and the Scottish Housing Regulator to name just a few. These plans will be reviewed and updated by the publication of Progress Reports.
The British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill is thus based on three pillars: the National Plan, the Authority Plans, and the Progress Reports.
The National Plan sets out the strategy of the Scottish Ministers in relation to the promotion, and facilitation of promotion, of BSL. It also sets out what the Scottish Ministers consider that relevant authorities should or could do to promote, and facilitate the promotion of, the use and understanding of BSL, within their areas of responsibility. The content of the National Plan needs to be publicly available, also in BSL. In preparing the National Plan, the Scottish Ministers need to consult on a draft of the plan, in particular with (a) “persons who use BSL” and (b) “persons who represent users of BSL”. The consultation needs to be accessible for BSL signers, also for those who are deafblind. The first National Plan needs to be published two years after the Act comes into force; subsequent National Plans need to be published at intervals of no more than six years since the publication of the most recent National Plan.
Listed Authorities’ Plans
An Authority Plan sets out measures that a listed authority will take in relation to the use of BSL and sets out timescales for when these measures will be taken. The aim is to achieve consistency between the National Plan and the Authority Plans. The consultation requirement is similar to that for the National Plan. These plans also need to be publicly available, also in BSL. A listed authority’s first Plan is to be published as soon as possible after the publication of the first National Plan (and no later than 12 months after). Subsequent Authority Plans must be published as soon as possibly after (and no later than 6 months after) each subsequent National Plan.
Progress reports set out the Scottish Ministers’ views about the progress made, based on the National Plan and the Authority Plans. The first Progress Report must be published within 3 years after the publication of the first National Plan and subsequently at intervals of no more than 6 years. Progress reports include an account of measures taken and outcomes attained, examples of best practice and, if there are any, of poor performance.
While retaining collective responsibility of ministers, the Scottish Government will assign BSL to Dr. Alasdair Allan, Scottish Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s languages, who will have responsibility for updating Parliament on the progress of the National Plan and the public authority action plans.
Another innovative feature of the Bill is that it also recognised the deafblind community’s distinct needs, and the tactile form of BSL. This is a major step forward for deafblind people in Scotland, of whom many attended the debate today.
These are the provisions of the BSL (Scotland) Bill. This blog is not the place to analyse and evaluate the Act’s purpose and provisions; I have made a first attempt in this article which you can read if you want to know more.
Member of Scottish Parliament Liam McArthur during the 2nd evidence session very well summarized the relevance of the Bill:
“The clear message is that the situation is patchy, despite the Equality Act 2010, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, the human rights framework and the range of services that already exist. The Deaf community is telling us that there is frustration that the patchiness exists despite those legislative levers – which are, let us face it, significantly more substantial than those proposed in the Bill. The Deaf community is saying that the Bill offers an opportunity to identify and symbolise the importance that we attach to BSL. Then, through the levers in the Equality Act 2010 and the human rights framework, we should start to see a more consistent approach to improving access for the deaf and hard of hearing community.”
That is exactly what the Bill will probably lead to: by feeding into equality and human rights legislation, achieve a more consistent approach to improving access for BSL signers. It will also act as a flagship, a symbol, for BSL, make BSL more visible and raise awareness about the language and the people who sign it, just like this happened for Gaelic. Deaf people should not have to declare themselves disabled to exercise their right to linguistic access. It’s a right thing the Bill moves away from this model, and views BSL as a minority language. A lot will also depend on what exactly will be in the first National Plan, and the Authority Plans. Consultation with the Scottish Deaf community will be very important in this regard, and it is hoped that this consultation will happen through the establishment of a National Advisory Group with a majority of BSL signers in it.
The Bill is a first step. It does not confer any absolute rights on BSL signers or obligations on public authorities. The experience with language schemes in Ireland, Wales and Scotland (for Gaelic) have showed that there are several pitfalls to be avoided and that they can only be a useful tool for language planning under certain conditions. The Bill is thus a stepping stone towards improving services.
That is not to be underestimated. (Better) access to services can make a lot of difference to the daily lives of deaf people in Scotland. And that, after all, is what sign language legislation should aim to achieve: improve deaf people’s lives. Create the space for us to continue to use sign language, make the language important for our social and cultural capital. Scotland as a whole will be a better country for it.
Congratulations to the Scottish Deaf community and everyone involved!