Heriot-Watt University: Historic moment as BSL becomes official language

A new law that recognises British Sign Language (BSL) as an official language in England and Wales has been warmly welcomed by academics at Heriot-Watt University.

A Bill, passed by the House of Lords earlier this week, has today (Apr 28) received Royal Ascent formally acknowledging BSL as a language for the first time.

The landmark move follows many years of campaigning by the Deaf community and supporters, in recognition of their language and the right to access public services such as health and education using sign language.

The passing of the BSL Act in the UK Parliament is a momentous occasion for British deaf people

Dr Robert Adam
Professor Jemina Napier and Dr Robert Adam from the University’s Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies described the news as a historic moment for BSL users and the Deaf community. They are also part of the SIGNS@HWU who are a group of researchers focussing on sign language and Deaf studies.

Professor Jemina Napier, Chair of Intercultural Communication and Director of Research for the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, said: “The SIGNS@HWU group at Heriot-Watt University is delighted that the final reading of the BSL Act 2022 has now been passed. This means our world leading sign language teaching and research has even more imprimatur and importance.

“BSL was legally recognised in Scotland in 2015, and our team works closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that our research has a positive impact on the delivery of the national BSL plan. But having UK-wide legislation will mean that there is more accountability to recognise the rights of deaf people to access services as minority language users in their own language, BSL, but also to promote BSL as a language for all.”

The new law places responsibility on the UK Government to provide improved guidance to public services and government departments on the use of BSL.

Dr Robert Adam is head of the BSL section at Heriot-Watt University and is a deaf academic. He said: “The passing of the BSL Act in the UK Parliament is a momentous occasion for British deaf people. Not only is BSL mentioned in various pieces of legislation, it now has its own Act, giving it some recognition in law. This will oblige government departments to think more about BSL and deaf people.

“I also wish to congratulate the British Deaf Association who have campaigned tirelessly for this moment and we at BSL@HWU look forward to working with them and other campaign groups, to further enhance the status of sign languages and deaf people everywhere.”

There are around 90,000 deaf people in the UK that have BSL as their first or preferred language.

Although BSL was recognised as a language in its own right by the UK government in 2003, it had no legal protection until now.

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