CDG Perspectives: 'Why British Sign Language (BSL) Interpreters Should Be Present At All Emergency Briefings'

Why BSL Is Different To English - "There are ten indigenous languages in the UK. Nine of them are spoken, one of them is visual. English is our official spoken language and all of our communications are delivered in it. We are educated in it, whilst also having specific lessons in it’s grammar and syntax.

This provides our foundation, our ability to operate and make our contributions within society and ultimately influence our own destiny. English, both spoken and written relies on being able to hear it to learn it. It is an auditory language before it is a written language. We pick it up all around us from birth and by the time we get to school we are ready to learn what words look like on a page and how to write those words ourselves. This concept applies to any spoken language."

Deafness is on a spectrum and technological advances mean that hearing aids and cochlear implants, as well as initial early diagnoses, are maximising the hearing potential of deaf children all the time. There are undeniable benefits for us all if we can communicate in the same language. However, for deaf children on the severe to profound end of the spectrum, visual communication may well be their natural foundation and British Sign Language their first language if they have the opportunity to learn it.

All languages are a system of communication and BSL is as complex and complete as English but uses space, hands, facial expression and body movement to create its own grammar and syntax. When watching it, although you may pick up some mouth patterns that match English words, the delivery is completely different to spoken English. 

We All Have A ‘First’ Language - Whilst most deaf sign language users also have good enough levels of English to be able to read articles, subtitles and lips when face to face, English is usually their second language. Even for those of us that are bilingual (in either spoken or signed languages), we naturally choose to go to our first language when looking for information. For those that do not consider themselves fluent but have access to a second language, absorbing information in that language requires considerable effort and the ability to be able to clarify production and understanding (think about a Doctor giving you information about your emergency medical procedure in French because you have a GSCE in it.) BSL is a first language for many, and the only language for some, and with the recently recognised profession of Sign Language Interpreting, our society finally has the potential to break down barriers to a deaf person’s access to the ‘hearing world’

Equality Of Information Sharing During Covid-19 - During this pandemic, while we have been behind closed doors, information has been made readily available in English on topics such as domestic abuse and how to protect your mental health in isolation. Both local and national deaf support groups have recognised that this information is more important than ever and have been creating BSL videos interpreting this information for the sign language community. This must be recognised. There is no way to ‘google translate’ English into BSL. All communities have their most vulnerable members and it is usually the most vulnerable sign language users that have the most trouble accessing written English. There have been daily briefings from the Government, talking directly to the people in this country about emergency measures and restrictions put in place. The reasons for these are applicable to everyone, not just hearing people. It is not enough to allow broadcasters to choose whether they provide an in-vison sign language interpreter (as the BBC does) and then have to carry the cost. Equality cannot be a business decision.

British Sign Language is the indigenous first visual language of this country. Having an interpreter physically present with the speakers, with a mandate enforcing broadcasters to include them in shot, would ensure that these briefings are delivered in both the indigenous first languages of the UK. If we truly are all in this together then we must all have the same access!

Alison Crook
Executive Member of the Conservative Disability Group (CDG)

Update following an announcement by the Cabinet Office Minister - The Rt. Hon. Penny Mordaunt MP - about changes to the provision of BSL at the Daily Briefings 

Whilst having an Interpreter there in person with the speakers would visually be more inclusive, having in-vision interpreters ensures that lighting and positioning are consistent for the viewer and also provides a better environment for the interpreter. Deaf interpreters are being employed to do this job (as well as hearing interpreters) and always interpret better into their own language so this is a huge positive.

Having a separate room dedicated to that will work better for interpreters needing to follow the autocue/teleprompter, rather than having to follow the autocue positioned specifically for the speakers. This provides an equal employment opportunity as well as equal access to the briefing for all Sign Language users once the other broadcasters show this feed too, and that ultimately, has always been our aim!

Alison Crook - 23rd May 2020