Despite centuries of usage and decades of recognition in linguistics, nobody really knows how many people in the UK have British Sign Language (BSL) as their main language.
Professor Graham Turner from the School of Social Sciences and the Signs@HWU team at Heriot-Watt University, along with partners Deaf Explorer, have received funding from UKRI for a project called Seeing Signing Living: From Demographic Deaficit to Census Consensus.
This project will act as a beacon for BSL in Census 2021 with the cultural and arts production company Deaf Explorer and associated artists. Curating an online festival celebrating and making visible signing communities, championing the power of the census as a pathway to their recognition, encouraging deaf people to participate in census processes, sharing information about the implications of censuses, the team aim to inspire signers to generate value for themselves from census findings.
Professor Graham Turner says: “The project will promote participation and provoke Census engagement with the UK’s diverse deaf communities through means of a mini-festival that spotlights BSL signers, championing the power of the Census as a pathway to UK-wide recognition of signing communities and a means of ensuring that public services respond effectively to the BSL population.
“The signing population in the UK is this project’s primary audience, but this initiative is relevant to some 17 million signers worldwide. In every country on earth, the hearing majority misunderstands and undervalues signers: in every country, better social and linguistic science, and population data that properly sees the significance of signing, can truly transform lives.”
The 2011 Census in the UK was the first to ask questions about the use of languages other than Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Each UK nation conducts its own census (Scotland’s next Census coming in 2022), and the question about signed language was phrased and contextualised differently in each.
Unsurprisingly, this led to different outcomes. Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, approximately 20-30 people per 100,000 name BSL as their ‘main language’. The figure for Scotland, however – 245 per 100,000 – implausibly indicates a proportion of BSL signers 10 times larger north of the border.
Professor Turner explains: “One explanatory factor for this false disparity is that Scotland was, in 2011, beginning the process of consultation and dialogue that ultimately led to the passing of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015. This legislation made Scotland unique in the UK, formalising recognition of BSL through a commitment to an open-ended cycle of National Plans which would be designed to promote the use and understanding of BSL. Scottish signers were fired up at the time of the last Census, and they showed it by proudly recording their strong identification with BSL.”
The Office for National Statistics (and equivalent bodies around the UK) has reviewed the Census questions presented this time. Renewed efforts have been made to use BSL in public messaging encouraging participation. A series of signed explanatory videos, presented by deaf people, is available giving guidance on the intentions of each question.
There’s no doubt at all that the community felt overlooked in 2011 and has no desire to let this happen again. For signers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it’s time to stand up, sign up, and be counted.