British Sign Language (BSL) holds the key to breaking down the misconceptions, mystery and mockery which surrounds the deaf community in the UK today. It is the gatekeeper for Deaf culture. Once a hearing person is able to learn BSL, they can access new resources and meet new people who can share stories with them, telling the individual the truths about being a deaf person. Anyone should learn the language, but it’s particularly important that children learn BSL at school.
Yesterday, the government responded to a petition with 10,665 signatures, entitled ‘Make British Sign Language part of the curriculum’. Jade Armstrong, who created the petition, said: “It’s compulsory for students in England to take a language to 14 but signing isn’t listed along with French, Germany or Mandarin. With one in 60 brits [sic] profoundly deaf and 11m others with hearing problems, this is a glaring omission is it not?”
The Department for Education replied: “BSL was recognised as a language in its own right by the UK government in 2003. Whilst it is not a mandatory part of the curriculum, schools are free to teach it if they choose to do so.
“The teaching of a foreign language is statutory at key stages 2 and 3 for pupils in maintained schools.
“The government accepts that British Sign Language (BSL) can be a beneficial subject that schools might choose to teach in addition to foreign languages. However, the national curriculum programmes of study for languages contain a number of requirements that could not be met through BSL; for example at key stage 2 the requirement to describe people, places, things and actions in writing. A maintained school would therefore be unable to meet the curriculum requirement solely by teaching BSL.”
This is understandable. Of course, a foreign language is important in an increasingly global world. Yet, it’s also worth learning a language which belongs to a huge UK community and subculture, that 24, 326 people aged three or over use – according to an estimate by the charity Action on Hearing Loss.
At the moment, the main provider of British Sign Language courses is Signature. However, with courses costing hundreds of pounds, it’s a price young people simply cannot afford. For children and young people, the only option is through school. Thankfully, at the moment, the organisation is trialling a GCSE in British Sign Language across six secondary schools and this could be an option for children in the future.
Support needs to be given to this programme, and to schools who want to teach British Sign Language alongside Modern Foreign Languages. Whilst the debate about whether children can learn languages easier than adults continues, teaching children about deafness and British Sign Language will lead to a future generation free of prejudices and misconceptions regarding the disability. Communication between the deaf and hearing worlds will improve and will lead to a more integrated world.
Whilst British Sign Language may not be made a compulsory part of the curriculum just yet, the government should encourage and support all schools to teach BSL as a secondary language.
It’s time to create new avenues which can get rid of the poor deaf awareness which is rooted in our society.
Photo: Ollie Cole.