Professor Graham Turner, Director of the Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies in Scotland (CTISS), part of Heriot-Watt's School of Management & Languages, was among the experts invited to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Education & Culture Committee on 24 February.
The committee is considering a British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, proposed by Labour MSP Mark Griffin with all-party support.
Professor Turner describes this as "a landmark development, finally delivering some of the outcomes expected when Westminster made its statement 'recognising' BSL in 2003. It is the focus of the Scottish Bill on active 'promotion' of the use of BSL that is significant. As the nature of signed languages has been analysed without prejudice over the last half-century, Deaf people have been characterised not as deficient – 'impaired' versions of hearing people, as the earlier medical model would have claimed – but simply different. In this light, it is plainly rational to recognise sign languages as evidence of our common humanity, to be cherished like any other language."
The Bill will mandate governments to promote the use and understanding of BSL. They will prepare, in each session of the Parliament, a BSL National Plan for Scotland on which BSL users and their representatives must be consulted. Led by Professor Turner, Heriot-Watt's Languages & Intercultural Studies department has worked with the Scottish Government since 2005 in preparation for the Bill, a relationship acknowledged by the high-level support received for Heriot-Watt's REF2014 impact case study, rooted in Turner's research, on 'Ensuring Greater Equality for Sign Language Users'. The department's languages research was rated 2nd in the UK for impact, on the strength of this and another case study from CTISS.
Professor Turner said, "The prospects for the Bill are encouraging, since the Scottish Government's own response has been to welcome and seek to strengthen the Bill.
"The authorities in Scotland are recognising that Deaf adults want to be assured that deaf children – over 90% of whom are born to hearing parents – will never again experience the battle for self-expression and self-realisation, and the oppression of the human spirit, which they themselves have faced."
The Parliamentary process has some way to run yet, but supporters of the Bill hope to see it satisfy Parliament and take force later in 2015.
Heriot-Watt's first graduates in BSL/English interpreting will receive their degrees in the summer of 2016, entering the workforce at a time of great promise for the BSL community in Scotland. "I'm using the hashtag #BSLEnlightenment," says Turner, "because I think what's happening here has exactly that kind of significance for the community involved. It has tremendous transformative power for BSL users, and as a whole university, Heriot-Watt should be proud of the part it is playing in this story."