Rob Wilks, a qualified solicitor and formerly with the RAD Deaf Law Centre, argues that we must have BSL legislation to prevent Deaf people continuing to be a marginalised group in society.
In light of the fact that there is ample evidence of the inequalities that Deaf people face in the United Kingdom; in spite of the fact that the Scottish Parliament has seen fit to put British Sign Language (BSL) on the statute books and there are moves in Northern Ireland to do the same; regardless of the fact that the United Nations has enshrined sign languages within the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and even though other countries in the world have recognised their national sign languages, the UK Government and Westminster continues to deny that Deaf BSL users need a BSL Act.
The House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability published its report, ‘The Equality Act 2010: the impact on disabled people’ (the Report), on 24 March 2016. Following an enquiry that started in 2015, during which the likes of the British Deaf Association (BDA), the Royal National Institute for the Blind, Disability Rights UK, Mind, Action on Hearing Loss, Carers UK, Autistic UK etc. were invited to give evidence orally, or provide evidence in writing, the Select Committee summed up the evidence given and has made welcome recommendations. Such as calling on the Government to give the CRPD due consideration, the Minster for Disabled People to have the rank of Minster of State restored, a call for visual announcements on transport, suggesting an amendment to the provision regarding the Public Sector Equality Duty, and calling for the reinstatement of the statutory questionnaire procedure.
The Report refers to the BDA as “representing people with hearing disabilities” and highlights the fact that this was the first time a Lords committee had taken evidence using BSL and the first occasion on which a committee of either House had received evidence from witnesses through BSL interpreters (House of Lords, para. 9). The fact that the Committee did not refer to the BDA for what it is, a Deaf organisation run by Deaf people, suggests that its members had little if no understanding of what it means to be Deaf, that is, a culturo-linguistic minority, whereby the sign languages, communities and cultures of the Deaf collective represents their primary experience and allegiance (Ladd, p. xvii).
Referring to the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015, the Committee opined that “we wonder whether this very significant cost (the £6million estimated for writing and reviewing plans under the Act) might not be better employed in directly training more BSL interpreters and increasing their availability where they are needed” (House of Lords, para. 177), undermining the work of the Deaf community in Scotland together with the Scottish Parliament in one dismissive sentence.
The Committee also disagreed with the BDA when David Buxton gave evidence that “the Equality Act does not cover BSL users” and “does not cover BSL use”. They stated that the Equality Act 2010 covers BSL users because it imposes on service providers a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments in communicating with them; and where BSL is their first or only language, those adjustments will very often be the provision of
BSL interpreters (House of Lords, para. 242).
This is despite, as the BDA argued in a 2014 report considering the legal status for BSL, social exclusion for Deaf people being a direct result of linguistic exclusion, which has manifested itself in the fact that Deaf people in the UK have experienced below average levels of school leaver achievements and access to health information, and higher than average levels of acquired mental ill health and exclusion from employment, criminal justice and civic engagement (BDA, 2014).
This is also despite clear evidence from the BDA that there is considerable ambiguity on what now constitutes a reasonable adjustment following the Employment Appeal Tribunal’s decision in Cordell v Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which makes it clear that there is a
cap on the costs an employer is expected to pay for adjustments. In this case, it was considered that £250,000 for lip-speakers to accompany a Deaf diplomat in Kazakhstan was unreasonable, suggesting that there is too wide a scope of what constitutes “reasonable adjustments” as interpreted by the courts to provide a definitive meaning (BDA, 2015a, para. 4.3). The Committee concluded that the provisions relating to reasonable adjustments need to remain “flexible” in order to maintain their “effectiveness” (House of Lords, para. 217).
Thus, it is clear that the Equality Act 2010 simply does not work, as Deaf people continue to be a marginalised group in society, and the law contained within the Equality Act 2010 itself is by no means clear and full of uncertainties. There are also enforcement issues to consider, as with cuts to legal aid and no accessible legal advice services available for Deaf people, challenging discrimination under the Act is more difficult than ever.
Interestingly, the Committee felt it necessary to state that they had agreed to issue the Call for Evidence in BSL, and to accept evidence in BSL provided that it was accompanied by an audio transcription or subtitles. In the event, they received no such evidence (para. 9). Unfortunately, this fact probably contributed to the Committee’s findings in relation to the need for a BSL Act.
All in all, the Report has pretty much dismissed the Deaf community’s call for a BSL Act, and together with the Minister for Disabled People, Justin Tomlinson MP’s statement that the Government has no appetite to legally recognise BSL as a minority language (BDA, 2015b), this suggests that there is still much to do in order to achieve a UK-wide BSL Act.
Rob Wilks, qualified solicitor, formerly of RAD Deaf Law Centre, now full time Lecturer in Legal Practice at the University of South Wales.
British Deaf Association, ‘Legal Status for BSL and ISL’ (BDA 2014).
British Deaf Association, ‘Equality Act 2010 and Disability: Submission Paper to the House of Lords’ Select Committee’ (BDA 2015a).
British Deaf Association, ‘Government reluctant to legally recognise BSL, says disability minister’ (10 July 2015 – http://bit.ly/reluctantbsl) accessed 4 May 2016.
Ladd, P, Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood (Multilingual Matters Ltd 2003).
House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability, ‘The Equality Act 2010: the Impact on Disabled People’, HL Paper 117 (The Stationery Office Limited 2016).