There are 70,00 profoundly deaf people in Britain for whom BSL is their first language. For the past 20 years the British Deaf Association has been campaigning for official recognition of BSL as a vital step in addressing the social exclusion of deaf people. It is demanding in particular that the Government recognise BSL under the European charter for regional or minority languages to ensure equal access for BSL users to public services and information, the legal system, education and cultural life.
The BDA is also calling on the Government to set up a BSL task force to review existing policies and to identify areas where new legislation, possibly similar to the Welsh Language Act 1993, is required to establish full linguistic rights. Indeed, deaf people are becoming increasingly energetic campaigners; only this month thousands were on the march through London demanding BSL be recognised as an official language.
No doubt they re encouraged by the fact that more and more people - many of them not deaf - are taking up signing. As many as 20,000 a year now take basic BSL exams and in October, as part of Deaf Awareness Week, the BDA will be calling for even more to take it up. Stephen Rooney, a BDA spokesman, says all people benefit from learning a visual language. "Often it helps people communicate in a more expressive and confident way," he says.
He adds that the move to place more deaf children into mainstream schooling worries many deaf people because it can mean that their access to BSL is denied.
"It is vital that deaf children are educated in a bilingual environment," says Mr Rooney.If they cannot develop their BSL skills then their educational progress can be seriously impaired. We are delighted when BSL is taken up by a whole school, as in the case of Ravenfield, and is not confined to just a few deaf children in an attached unit."