UNIONS hope the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing people will be given a higher priority in colleges after the Government stated its commitment to British Sign Language.
BSL is to become officially recognised, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has announced. The decision means other parts of government, including the Department for Education and Skills, will have to give it special attention when they decide on their own spending priorities.
Natfhe, the lecturers' union, which has long been campaigning for such recognition, hopes this will make it easier to push for more resources to boost sign language in further education and sixth-form colleges.
As well as increasing the number of lecturers in the language, the union would like to see BSL interpreters become more widely available for deaf and hard-of-hearing people who apply to join mainstream courses.
Kate Heasman, Natfhe's equality official, said: "We are delighted that the Government has taken this step. Natfhe has campaigned for many years to get British Sign Language recognised as an official language. We now have to ensure that its new status is fully implemented.
"The next step has to be legislation that will require employers, education institutions and all service providers to engage BSL interpreters whenever they are needed, ensuring a level playing-field for deaf people at work, in education and society."
The DWP has allocated pound;1 million for initiatives to support BSL's new recognition, although this is only the first step.
Natfhe also believes further legislation may be needed to increase the entitlement to access to BSL courses.
Andrew Smith, Secretary of State for work and pensions, said: "What we are saying today is important for the 70,000 or so deaf people for whom British Sign Language is their first or preferred language for participating in everyday life, and for their families.
"But it is also important for the rest of society to understand that BSL is a language and what this means. Symbolism is very important, of course, but the statement is about more than that. Across government, we have taken a number of steps to increase access to BSL and we are today announcing a pound;1m programme of initiatives to support the statement."
The British Deaf Association says there is an urgent need for more deaf people to train as BSL tutors so the language becomes more widely understood.
It hopes the new recognition of BSL will help bring this about. The charity works closely with the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People, which sets the syllabus for BSL courses.
Jeff McWhinney, chief executive of the BDA, said: "The British Deaf Association, the lead organisation of deaf sign language users, has been campaigning for over 20 years for this decision and we are delighted to receive the news.
"There is still a long way to go before equality is achieved, but this is a milestone achievement for the sign language community.
"The British Deaf Association looks forward to working closely with the Government on this issue. We will be holding a conference in May that focuses on the recognition of BSL."