For most people, 2:14pm on Friday 28 January 28 was an afternoon just like any other. For the Deaf community however, an historic moment was taking place in the House of Commons.
The British Sign Language Bill had just passed its second reading, unopposed. In a matter of moments, the language had taken a giant step towards legal recognition, its first in nearly 20 years. Tens of thousands of deaf people could celebrate. Indeed, hundreds of them were right outside in Parliament Square doing just that.
At the same time, thousands of young British Sign Language users in schools, colleges and universities up and down the country could also start feeling a sense of optimism. Had the urgent change they so badly need finally been set in motion?
A persistent struggle
Not all deaf students use British Sign Language, but many do. For some, it’s their first language. Yet we still hear stories of them arriving in higher education settings ready to learn, only to be left without an interpreter. The sense of dread starts when they arrive, then the frustration and sheer exhaustion soon kicks in as they struggle to keep up.
This is bad enough considering they pay the same fees as hearing students, but it’s particularly acute considering the battle many have already fought to get there. A lack of support at school means deaf children achieve a grade less at GCSE on average. Just a third get two A-Levels or equivalent, compared to more than half of hearing students. Consequently, they’re less likely to get the grades they need for higher education.
When they do arrive, the battle often continues. Almost half of deaf students say that the support they need, such as interpreters, notetakers or technology, hasn’t been put in place when their course starts. Of those, a quarter are still waiting six months later.
Even when it is in place, only half say it’s available every time they need it.
Why is this happening?
In theory, deaf students don’t need to pay for the support they need. The Government’s Disabled Students Allowance should cover what they need. However, as with any system, the problems are widespread. Reforms are both necessary and long overdue.
British Sign Language interpreters are often freelancers and to work with disabled students, they need to be on a register of support workers. It involves cutting through swathes of bureaucracy, including meeting a lengthy list of criteria, terms and conditions. Many are put off, leaving a real shortage of those willing to do it.
There’s also a cap on the support deaf students get through Disabled Students Allowance. Given the cost of interpreting, this means it often runs out midway through the year. This leaves universities and colleges to meet the cost – and not all of them do. The Equality Act means they need to make “reasonable adjustments”, but it’s not clear what this vague definition really means. It certainly doesn’t specify British Sign Language interpreters. A change in the law would certainly be welcome.
Could the new Bill make any difference?
Sadly, things won’t change overnight, but the British Sign Language Bill could finally set the wheels in motion. If it passes, it’ll set up an advisory panel that the Government will need to meet with regularly and it could start making the recommendations deaf students need. The Bill could draw Government attention to this critical issue. More informally, the added exposure and interest could inspire colleges and universities to make sure they’re meeting all their deaf students’ needs, including those who use sign language. Given deaf students are just as capable as hearing students, we’d certainly hope so.
However, as with many Bills, there are notes of caution, not least because it isn’t yet law. It will require the Department for Work and Pensions to produce guidance for other departments on British Sign Language, but what does that mean in practice? There’s no obligation for those departments to follow it, only to report on the efforts they’re making. When exactly will there be specific, legally mandated change for deaf students? That’s a good question, to which we don’t have the answer. We’re continuing to lobby the Government to deliver.
This Bill may not be the silver bullet for deaf education. Any change will most likely come too late for those currently in higher education, including those struggling without sign language interpreters.
It is, however, the first time that British Sign Language will be recognised in law. It sets us on the path to seeing interpreters in every lecture or lesson where a deaf student needs one. There’s also a generation of deaf potential in school classrooms, up and down the country, for whom this just might make a big difference. There will be future generations who can benefit too.
Simply put, it’s another step towards a world in which deaf students can finally operate on an even footing. One where they get the same chance of succeeding as their hearing course mates and their language is not only respected, but also provided for.
Though the job is far from complete, that is certainly worth celebrating.
Deaf since the age of four, Susan Daniels OBE is a passionate campaigner for deaf children’s rights. She joined the National Deaf Children’s Society as Chief Executive in 1992 and is a member of both the BBC Appeals Advisory Committee and the Disabled Students' Commission.
The Disabled Students’ Commission is an independent and strategic group set up to advise, inform and influence higher education providers and sector bodies in England to improve support for disabled students. Advance HE has responsibility for providing secretariat support, as well as overseeing the management, coordination and dissemination of research and other DSC outcomes. Find out more about the Disabled Students’ Commission