Why We Need a Sign Language Act in Northern Ireland
The collapse of the power-sharing Executive in January 2017 means that progress towards the legal recognition of BSL and ISL has stalled says Dr Bronagh Byrne.
The debate surrounding an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland has been well documented and publicised. Less well known is the ongoing battle for a Sign Language Act for Northern Ireland’s Deaf community. Contrary to popular belief, sign language is not a universal language. Each country has its own sign language along with regional variations or dialects. In Northern Ireland, it is estimated that there are 3,500 users of British Sign Language (BSL) and 1500 users of Irish Sign Language (ISL). Both BSL and ISL were officially recognised as minority languages in Northern Ireland in March 2004 by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy MP. However, this was not accompanied by any statutory protection, legal status or formal Executive strategy.
Importance of language rights
Language rights are not only symbolic, but have strong practical implications. They send out strong messages about whose voices are considered legitimate. Without legal status, users of a minority language are unable to access facilities and services on the same basis as users of the dominant language. This is exacerbated when the battle for legitimacy takes the form, not of different spoken languages, but of spoken versus signed languages. Research has shown, for example, that: Deaf people’s health is poorer than that of the general population, with some Deaf people at risk of reduced life expectancy. Causes include a lack of sign language interpreters at consultations including a lack of awareness on how to book interpreters, and a dearth of public health information in sign language.
This can mean that Deaf people are unable to make informed decisions about their health. The lack of a strong legal framework for support can also lead to young hearing children interpreting for their parents in a wide range of situations, including hospital consultations relating to serious health conditions or discussion of significant legal issues with solicitors. Such situations would be deemed completely unacceptable and inappropriate in exchanges conducted in the dominant spoken language.
Deaf people also have poorer educational outcomes compared to the hearing population with Deaf young people currently unable, for example, to complete a GCSE in their first language. This has led to a campaign by a Deaf schoolboy, supported by Deaf organisations, calling for the introduction of a GCSE in BSL. For the majority of Deaf people, sign language is a language of need, not of choice; a critical avenue to inclusion. While speakers of other languages may have the opportunity to learn another spoken language, this is not the case for many members of the Deaf community. This can compound the effects of crime, with research suggesting that Deaf women are twice as likely as hearing women to experience domestic violence, language barriers meaning they are unable to report such crime, and support organisations lacking the funding needed to provide specialist support to Deaf victims of crime where it is reported.
Legal recognition of sign language
Article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) clearly states that ‘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 legal recognition of sign languages is gaining attention worldwide and laws recognising sign languages taking varying forms, ranging from constitutional recognition, recognition in language legislation and Sign Language Acts as highlighted by De Meulder, Murray and McKee 2019. In Ireland for example, the Irish Sign Language Act (ISL Act) was adopted in December 2017. This aims to, inter alia, provide for the recognition of ISL, its use in legal proceedings and the provision of sign language classes for parents, siblings and grandparents. In the UK, Scotland is the only region to have given legal recognition to sign language so far. The BSL (Scotland) Act came into force in October 2015 requiring Scottish Ministers to promote, and facilitate the promotion of, the use and understanding of BSL.
Work to enhance the status of sign language has been underway in Northern Ireland for some time. In 2010, the then Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) commissioned the ‘Consultation Report on the Sign Language Partnership Group (SLPG) Strategic Direction’ Report. This report included a 10 year ‘Roadmap’ which outlined the steps necessary to build the infrastructure of support for BSL and ISL users and their families. In 2016, DCAL launched a consultation on a Framework promoting Sign Language to ensure that BSL and ISL users have the ‘same rights, responsibilities, opportunities and quality of life as those in the hearing community by enshrining equality and social inclusion in legislation for the current and future generations of Deaf Sign language users and their families’. Central to this Framework are the proposals for draft legislation to safeguard ISL/BSL users’ rights as a cultural and linguistic minority to be able to access services in their own language. Significantly, for the first time, the consultation process allowed the Deaf community to provide evidence in their first language via BSL/ISL videos on Facebook.
The collapse of the power-sharing Executive in January 2017 means that progress towards the legal recognition of BSL and ISL has stalled. This means that, at present, Deaf people must rely on the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act (NI) (1995) to secure ‘reasonable adjustment’ via sign language provision. In order to do so, Deaf people are required to identify as ‘disabled’; a sharp contrast to their right to recognition as a cultural and linguistic minority under the CRPD, and a position that would be deemed inappropriate for other linguistic minorities. Until this is resolved, the ability of Northern Ireland’s Deaf community to avail of society’s opportunities in their first language will continue to be silenced.
 The use of capital ‘D’ in Deaf is used to refer to those who define themselves as culturally Deaf with sign language as a first or preferred language unless otherwise stated.