The road to sign language legislation in Northern Ireland

damian barry terry riley dcal minister pledge
BDA Director of Community Development Damian Barry with Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) Minister Carál Ní Chuilín and Dr Terry Riley OBE, BDA Chair

More than a decade after recognition, the prospect of a BSL/ISL Bill in Northern Ireland is now closer to becoming a reality. The BDA’s Damian Barry explains how we got to this stage.

Both British Sign Language (BSL) and Irish Sign Language (ISL) were embraced within the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and in March 2004 the then Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, announced the formal recognition of BSL and ISL as languages in their own right following similar recognition of BSL in Great Britain in 2003. This recognition does not provide any statutory protection for the languages.

There then followed the creation of a Sign Language Partnership Group (SLPG) that consisted of representatives from all NI Government departments and Deaf organisations who were tasked with agreeing suitable projects to benefit the Deaf Community and Service providers. Projects delivered included Deaf Awareness for community service providers, Deaf Presenters training, sign language classes for deaf young people, Interpreter awareness, Mentoring of Deaf professionals and Interpreter training. After five years it became clear that while many of the projects were very beneficial there was a lack of joined up thinking to enable future funding of projects to be effective.

In 2010, the Department of Culture. Arts and Leisure (DCAL) commissioned the ‘Consultation Report on the SLPG Strategic Direction’ Report through the SLPG. This report included a ten-year ‘Roadmap’ which outlined the steps necessary to build the infrastructure of support for ISL and BSL users and their families.

The report highlighted three themes that needed to be addressed:

Care and Protection 

Creating priorities to recognise and protect the cultural and linguistic rights of ISL and BSL users and to build the sustainable infrastructure necessary to promote and support ISL and BSL users and their families, including the supply and full access to ISL/BSL Teachers and Interpreters.


Creating priorities that ensure future generations of deaf children and young people reach adulthood with the best chance of securing full social inclusion. This will be achieved through family-centred early interventions to provide good educational outcomes, enhanced employment prospects and health outcomes through provision of sign language as a primary or complementary communication method, including through bilingualism with spoken language.

Correction (Putting things right) 

Creating priorities that increase social inclusion for the current generation of Deaf people who have left education with little academic qualifications, reduced access to training and little prospect of gaining employment or progressing in their careers by providing access to ongoing personal and social development programmes to build their knowledge and skills in their primary language, creating confidence and self esteem to participate fully in their society.

The report concluded that the best Government department to lead this was DCAL because they were responsible for language and culture.

Between 2010 and 2013 many further projects were delivered that would contribute to the progress of the ten-year Roadmap. These mainly focused on building capacity to train Deaf people to develop skills and experiences and to become confident enough to participate in community life. These projects were delivered by various organisations including Action on Hearing Loss, BDA, NDCS, Hands that Talk, Action Deaf Youth, Foyle Sign Language centre, ASLI, Deaf Tutors group and Deaf Answers.

After three years of successful delivery, DCAL commissioned a Review report in 2014 to assess how well the ten-year Roadmap was progressing. The report consulted with the same groups and found that the Deaf community was being empowered from the bottom up and becoming more positive. But there was very little progress from the top downwards. The Review Report concluded that for the Roadmap to have any chance of success it needed some form of legislation in order to encourage positive change.

DCAL then commissioned a further report to outline an Action Plan that was required to assist the Roadmap. This plan was produced in late 2014 and submitted to DCAL.

DCAL put forward the Review report and Action Plan to the CAL Committee for consideration and they were accepted. It was concluded that for any change to happen there needed to be executive powers to encourage Government departments to contribute to the Roadmap.

In Nov 2015, the BDA hosted a World Federation for the Deaf meeting and a 125th Anniversary Civic Reception in Belfast. At that reception the Northern Ireland Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ni Chuilin unexpectedly announced that she was going to publish and consult on a Framework for promoting Sign Language, including proposals for legislation.

She confirmed this to the NI Assembly on 1st December 2015.

deputy first minister martin mcguinneess majella mcateer
Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness with BDA Northern Ireland Community Development Manager, Majella McAteer signing BSL/ISL pledge

The main outcomes expected upon implementation of the Framework
will include:

• Full access to public services through building of a sustainable infrastructure of support for Irish Sign Language and British Sign Language users and their families

• Formal recognition and protection of Irish Sign Language and British Sign Language enshrined in legislation

• Better life outcomes for current and future generations of deaf children

• Increased numbers of households using Irish Sign Language and British Sign Language as a means of communication

• Increased positive attitudes towards Irish Sign Language and British Sign Language, particularly among the hearing community resulting in increased social inclusion for the Deaf community.

The Minister along with Junior Ministers of the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister supported a ‘Pledge’ event where MLAs signed up to support the need for a BSL/ISL Bill. This happened at Stormont at the beginning of Sign Language week on 14th March 2016. There was noticeable cross party support for this.

The following day, 15th March 2016, The Minister of DCAL informed the Assembly that a formal consultation of the Sign Language Framework had been launched and would continue for sixteen weeks to 4th July.

This was great news for the Northern Ireland Deaf Community and takes us one step further down the legislative road for a future NI BSL/ISL Bill.

The consultation details can be found here.

Did you know?

BSL and ISL have their own grammar and syntax systems rather than being visual reflections of other languages. BSL is the first or preferred language of communication of approximately 3,500 members of the Deaf population of Northern Ireland while approximately 1,500 use ISL.