There has been recent criticism of the Government for its method of information delivery to sign language audiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.
British sign language
Sign Language, as described by the learning organisation British-Sign.co.uk, is a visual method of communication that uses gestures, body language and facial expression. Sign language is not a universal language, but instead has many regional and national variations. Sense, a disability support charity, says that sign language is predominantly used by individuals who are deaf or who have a hearing impairment.
British sign language (BSL) is the preferred language of over 87,000 deaf people in the UK, according to the British Deaf Association. In the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Irish sign language is also used.
BSL has developed over several centuries. However, it was not until 2003 that the then Government announced that BSL would be formally recognised as an official minority language in the UK. Signature, a registered charity and awarding body of BSL qualifications in the UK, said that whilst this official recognition was welcomed, it did not provide BSL with the same statutory status as other languages, such as Welsh or Irish (Gaeilge).
A recent British Deaf Association campaign, ‘BSL Act Now!’, is calling for further legislative protection of BSL. Campaigners argue that BSL has not been afforded the same protection as other minority languages. For example, the Welsh Language Act 1993 was introduced to protect and promote the Welsh language. The campaigners have drafted a ‘BSL bill’ that would require the establishment of a BSL board to promote and facilitate the use of BSL across the UK, amongst other provisions.
Recent criticism of the Government’s Covid-19 briefings
The BBC has provided BSL interpretation to date. However, criticism has continued about the absence of an on-set BSL interpreter at the live televised Covid-19 briefings. A legal challenge has now been launched against the Government to determine the lawfulness of its actions.
A twitter campaign, #Whereistheinterpreter, launched in March 2020, following a tweet made by the campaign’s founder Lynn Stewart-Taylor. The campaign calls on the Government to provide a BSL interpreter on-set at the briefings. It argues that the Government has been unique in not providing a BSL interpreter live on-set. A BBC article about the #Whereistheinterpreter campaign noted that, in Scotland and Wales for example, interpreters stood 2m behind ministers during their televised briefings.
Subtitles are available for the Government’s televised live Covid-19 briefings. However, BSL and English are distinct languages. Ms Stewart-Taylor considers BSL as her first language. Whilst she was taught English at school, Ms Stewart-Taylor said she has “the average reading age of a seven-year-old”.
The Department of Work and Pensions minister, Justin Tomlinson, in response to a written parliamentary question last year, said that a BSL interpreter would be introduced during the live Covid-19 briefings on the BBC News Channel and BBC iPlayer from 16 March 2020.
However, some argue this does not go far enough. In the BBC article from October 2020, Ms Stewart-Taylor said that the responsibility to provide BSL interpretation services should not fall to broadcasters. Amongst other reasons, she argued that some people may be unable to access such channels.
In April 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote to the Government asking it to reconsider its position and include a live BSL interpreter on-set. The commission said that this would allow the Government to prove its commitment to equality for all. Amongst other groups, the Centre for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People supports the #Whereistheinterpreter campaign. The centre believes it is essential that individuals whose first language is BSL can receive coronavirus information in BSL, so that they can understand what actions the public are being asked to take to stay safe.
Following the recent £2.6 million spend on a new Downing Street briefing room, an article from the Disability News Service referred to further concerns raised by campaigners about the lack of provision to allow for an on-set BSL interpreter.
The law firm Fry Law launched judicial review proceedings on behalf of Katie Rowley, a deaf actor from Leeds, against the Government on this issue in December 2020. In March 2021, the #Whereistheinterpreter campaign confirmed that a High Court judge had granted permission for the judicial review proceedings to begin against the Government. The date for the hearing is yet to be confirmed.
Sign language interpretation of parliamentary proceedings
Recent years have seen the introduction of BSL interpretation to certain parliamentary proceedings, most notably for prime minister’s questions.
A Commons Hansard blog describes how House of Commons Hansard and Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit teams first introduced a BSL interpreter during a Westminster Hall debate on hearing loss in 2017. In March 2018, the teams delivered the first live simultaneous BSL translation of proceedings to audiences on parliamentlive.tv.
The Commons Hansard blog said that the broadcasting of the BSL translation received an overwhelmingly positive response from the media, members of parliament, deaf and hearing loss organisations, and the deaf community in the UK.
To build on this, the House of Commons launched a trial of live BSL interpretation for prime minister’s questions from February 2020. This went on to support the delivery of live Covid-19 updates of prime minister’s questions on parliamentlive.tv to BSL audiences from March 2020.
Cover image from Freepik.