Posted: Mon 24th Jun 2024

Senedd backs plan for British Sign Language Bill to improve deaf access

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The Senedd backed plans to introduce a bill to encourage the use of British sign language and improve access to public services for deaf people.

Mark Isherwood said his proposed British sign language (BSL) legislation would give deaf people a real voice in the design and delivery of services.

He told the Senedd that if the bill fails to become law, Wales will be the only part of the UK that is not covered by a specific BSL law.

The North Wales MS welcomed the UK’s 2022 British Sign Language Act but pointed out that the reporting and guidance duties do not apply to Wales.

Mr Isherwood, who won a ballot among MSs to propose the bill, said: “Existing legislation does not meet the needs of the deaf community and BSL signers.”

‘Flourish’

The Conservative explained the bill would establish a BSL commissioner, with the same powers as the Welsh language commissioner.

“This would show a significant message of support to the BSL signing community,” he said.

Mr Isherwood told the chamber the bill would place a duty on the Welsh Government to publish an annual report on progress in promoting and facilitating the use of BSL.

He quoted the British Deaf Association: “BSL is not just a language – it is also a gateway to learning and the means whereby deaf people survive and flourish in a hearing world.”

Mr Isherwood estimated the annual cost of the bill at about £800,000 for the first five years, stressing that early intervention and prevention will reduce cost pressures on other services.

‘Not needed’

Lesley Griffiths suggested the Welsh Government will not support the opposition bill as Mr Isherwood attempts to navigate the Senedd’s legislative process.

Wales’ social justice secretary said: “While I fully appreciate the intention behind this bill, I do not think it is needed. We can – and have – made significant progress without a bill.”

Ms Grifiths pointed out that the Welsh Government did not need a bill to include BSL in Wales’ new curriculum or to ensure BSL/English interpreters at press conferences.

She said: “We can, and we will, use policy levers to create effective change and equality,” adding that Welsh ministers recognised BSL as a language of Wales in 2004.

Ms Griffiths raised the role of the disability rights taskforce which was set up following a report, entitled Locked out, about the impact of the pandemic on disabled people.

‘Clear gap’

Plaid Cymru’s Sioned Williams said Wales cannot rely on the goodwill of organisations alone, warning the lack of standards on BSL is a “clear gap in our legislative framework”.

She said: “More widely, this is an example of the wide-ranging social barriers that face the deaf community in Wales, which become clear, very often, very early on in their lives.”

The shadow social justice secretary raised alarm about the lack of any accredited auditory verbal therapists, who provide specialist early intervention for deaf children.

Ms Williams said deaf learners are 26% less likely to gain GCSE grades A* to C in English, Welsh and maths, compared with their hearing contemporaries.

She raised concerns about unequal access to health care, warning: “This puts their health at risk, undermines their human rights and dignity, and is a clear example of inequality.”

‘Excluded’

Sam Rowlands paid tribute to Mr Isherwood, who chairs cross-party groups on disability, deaf issues and autism, for his campaigning during two decades as a Senedd member.

The shadow health secretary argued his Conservative colleague’s bill has the potential to revolutionise the lives of deaf people in Wales.

Mr Rowlands told the chamber his mum has been learning British sign language in Wrexham but she has reached a point where more advanced courses are not available.

The North Wales MS said: “It’s struck me and my family that there’s a chance to consider how we include deaf people and how we can play our part in learning BSL….

“It’s simply not right or fair that deaf people are excluded from too many parts of life because of their disability.”

‘Obstacles’

Peredur Owen Griffiths raised Welsh Women’s Aid’s concerns that a lack of BSL support prevents women at risk of, or experiencing, domestic abuse from seeking help.

The Plaid Cymru MS for South Wales East warned that around 22 deaf women are at risk every day but they continue to face significant barriers when accessing support.

He said: “These communication barriers cause additional obstacles for survivors wanting to access help and support, making it more difficult for them to leave perpetrators.”

He backed a reporting requirement, saying: “What gets measured gets done, so putting a duty on reporting is so important in creating a culture where use of BSL is embedded.”

In closing, Mr Owen Griffiths asked: “Parity between Welsh and English is enshrined in law, so why not add a third Welsh language, BSL?”

‘Betrayal’

Natasha Asghar, who also represents South Wales East, said she attended a basic BSL course in Newport, “which was a hugely exciting as well as beneficial experience”.

She warned: “Many deaf BSL signers have a lower reading age than the general population as a result of linguistic exclusion. This in turn can lead to social exclusion.”

Replying to the debate, Mr Isherwood said it would be a matter of shame and a gross betrayal if Wales was the only part of the UK not covered by specific BSL legislation.

Members voted 24-16 to allow Mr Isherwood to introduce the bill, with three Labour backbenchers – Alun Davies, Rhianon Passmore and Buffy Williams – abstaining.

With the Senedd’s backing, the BSL bill now moves to stage one of the legislative process but a series of crunch votes loom on the horizon before it can become law.

By Chris Haines, ICNN Senedd reporter



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