Yesterday my private members bill on British Sign Language received Royal Assent and finally became law. Now, in the aftermath of 4 years hard work to get it there, I can’t help but reflect with some pride on how it will help to address historic inequalities and how important it is that we, as a Labour movement, continue to challenge such inequalities from our grassroots up.
Deaf people are all around us as neighbours, colleagues and as family members. We ourselves may be Deaf or become Deaf in later life. Whilst Deaf people are present in all parts of the community, they are often excluded from the day-to-day activities we take for granted.
British Sign Language (or BSL) is the first language of many Deaf and Deafblind people in Scotland. It is the only language many have ever known or will ever know, yet getting access to basic information and services in BSL is incredibly difficult. Simple tasks that most of us carry out with ease, such as making a doctor’s appointment or reporting a crime, can be extremely difficult for those who use BSL because of the lack of proper systems and support networks. It is unacceptable that in 21st Century Scotland Deaf people still face barriers when they seek to access the most basic information.
The Long and Winding Road: A Roadmap to British Sign Language & Linguistic Access in Scotland was a 2009 report published by the Scottish Government which set out the following priorities for the Deaf community:
- families with deaf babies would be supported to meet the linguistic needs of their child at the appropriate age;
- deaf pupils would have the same school attainments as their peers;
- BSL would be offered as an educational tool for deaf pupils who prefer it;
- pupils could study BSL and Deaf culture as a curriculum subject, from primary school through to university;
- all public services would be deaf and deafblind aware;
- deaf and deafblind people would be provided with timely information;
- information would always be provided in a range of accessible formats;
- the implications of deafness would be understood and valued by society.
I had the immense privilege of working closely with Scotland’s Deaf organisations and individual BSL users to consult on and develop a proposal for a British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, based on the above priorities. Now that it has passed, the Act will place a responsibility on Scottish Government Ministers to promote BSL throughout Scottish society and work towards some of the aims and objectives set out by the BSL Roadmap. The Act requires the Scottish Government and a range of public authorities to produce BSL action plans as a way of compelling them to consider the needs of BSL users when it comes to accessibility of information and how services are delivered.
Deciding to take forward a proposal for a private members bill on BSL was one of my first acts as a newly elected MSP in 2011. As a member of the Labour family, with equality at the centre of my political beliefs, I found it unacceptable that someone’s life chances, educational attainment, employment opportunities and so much more were determined by the language they use and not their own ability.
I wholeheartedly believe that demonstrating our desire to fight for equality, fairness and compassion on issues like this is what will keep us on the right path as we start on our own long and winding road back to government. We can take much pride in our history and it is important that we – the party of the NHS, tax credits, minimum wage and so much more – continue to put ordinary people’s needs at the forefront of our minds as we formulate policy and campaign in our communities.
For make no mistake, it is this commitment – and not endless back and forth on constitutional matters – that means everything to real people. Don’t believe me? Have a look at this reaction: