THE Government has finally officially recognised British Sign Language after a 20-year campaign by pressure groups.
But a national shortage of BSL tutors means it could be years before a deaf student has the same opportunities as everyone else in further education.
Natfhe, the lecturers' union, has estimated that it will take at least five years to train the necessary extra BSL tutors.
The union, which represents both deaf and hearing lecturers who teach BSL, or FE courses through the medium of BSL, have calculated that double the current 500 tutors will be needed.
Tom Wilson, head of education at Natfhe, said: "It takes at least a year to learn BSL, and at least a further year to become fluent, and you just can't expand overnight because such is the demand that most of the people teaching BSL are already very busy - so you can't just double their classes overnight.
"You have got to train up people to help the existing tutors, and gradually increase the capacity at the rate the system can bear."
The union now wants colleges to seek money to train BSL tutors under the Disability Discrimination Act, which established a fund of pound;70 million for improving access to training.
Another objective is legislation to oblige educational institutions and employers to hire BSL tutors where they are needed.
Many colleges have been operating hand-to-mouth on BSL in recent years, often hiring tutors on short-term contracts which discourage qualified people from staying in FE. It can also be hard to recruit or retain qualified tutors, not least because there is a sizeable demand from private training companies, conference organisers, TV stations and local authorities. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that, in adult education, local authorities are bypassing deaf candidates to hire some BSL teachers who can hear but are not fully qualified.
Julie Cooper, a Natfhe branch organiser in Birmingham, who has taken BSL courses, said: "It is cheaper because interpreters do not have to be provided for staff meetings and so on.
"On one of these courses, neither of the people the local authority sent along to check up could use sign language, and they didn't bring an interpreter with them. "The hearing students had to interpret for the deaf ones."
Natfhe is now urging all its branches to negotiate with employers to ensure the colleges make access funds available so that they can offer BSL courses, and a "massive" demand is now expected.
Colleges are also being urged to start giving BSL teachers permanent, better-paid contracts with a more attractive career structure.
After a 20-year campaign by the British Deaf Association and several other groups, official status for the language of the deaf has finally been conceded by Andrew Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and Maria Eagle, the minister for disabled people.
The Government now recognises BSL as "a language in its own right regularly used by a significant number of people." BSL, officialdom now allows, is "a visual-gestural language with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax."
There are about 70,000 deaf people for whom BSL is their "first or preferred language for participating in everyday life, and for their families".
The British Deaf Association welcomed the new status as a "milestone", but said there is "still a long way to go before equality is achieved".
Ministers say they will put up pound;1m to increase "opportunities to study BSL to professional level" as well as to make employers and "service-providers" such as colleges more aware of the language.