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When Will BSL Be On The Agenda?

Staff writer Diana Rajabalinia looks into the new British Sign Language (BSL) GCSE and takes a look at society’s knowledge of BSL more broadly.

This proposal has been in the works since 2019, and its progress has been largely attributed to the campaigns by Daniel Jillings. Jillings argues that language GCSEs disadvantage Deaf and hearing-impaired students, who are excluded in the listening and speaking exercises and advocates for Deaf students to obtain qualifications in their first language.

I interviewed Barnaby Albiston, a Deaf first year maths student at Kings College London, where we discussed the introduction of BSL at GCSE level and the level of accessibility of education for Deaf individuals in the UK. During our conversation he commented on the progression of Jillings campaigns :

““Daniel Jillings started his campaign so that Deaf BSL users could take a GCSE in their own language. Since then, the campaign has become as much about hearing people wanting to learn BSL and being able to communicate with the Deaf community.” 

Despite this, BSL will not be “part of the national curriculum,” which leaves individual schools to make decisions over whether to introduce BSL at the GCSE level. This poses its own set of issues, as budget cuts would mean that many schools would not be able to introduce qualified BSL teachers and the disparities between hearing- and hearing-impaired students would remain. When interviewed, Albiston also raised concerns over the adequacy of preparation and suggested some schools may miss out as a result.

“For some schools, September 2025 may come as too soon to provide a BSL GCSE, due to the short timeframe and extensive planning.”

Nevertheless, it is a landmark decision and a step in the right direction.

Although BSL was recognised as a minority language in 2003 and gained legal protection in 2022, many people still lack awareness of what BSL is. A Roar survey conducted at King’s campuses reported that 24% of students did not know what the acronym BSL stood for.

Strictly, Bake Off, Love Island and the Media

The lack of representation of Deaf individuals in the British media has been a significant and long-standing issue which largely accounts for the unfamiliarity surrounding BSL. The limited visibility of Deaf individuals in the media hinders the ability of the public at large to understand issues facing the Deaf community, such as barriers to education, and in part explains the lack of urgency for advocacy amongst wider society. Whilst there has been a positive trend towards inclusion, with popular UK shows such as the British Bake Off featuring a Deaf participant for the first time with Tasha Stones and Love Island featuring Tasha Ghouri, there has been an overall lack of consistency within the past few years. 

Albiston however, credits the biggest breakthrough for Deaf representation in the Media to Rose Ayling-Ellis, a Deaf contestant on the UK dance talent show Strictly Come Dancing.

“The success of Rose Ayling-Ellis on Strictly Come Dancing was groundbreaking. She has made Deaf children and adults more comfortable and confident about their deafness, and has driven an increase in people wanting to learn BSL. She has done more to show deafness and BSL in a positive light than anyone has ever done on mainstream television.”

More representation within the media would help bridge the gap and clear misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding Deaf culture. Firstly, BSL, like many other languages has regional dialects within the UK, such as with numbers and colours, where there are over 17 signs for the colour purple. This is one of the main issues faced by individuals trying to self-learn sign language, as it will be difficult to differentiate regional signs. BSL also does not follow English grammar, which is why Sign Supported English (SSE), which does use English grammar, is usually mistakenly used instead of BSL. It is important to recognise BSL as its own language, with its unique grammar and its culture

It is not just the media that plays a role in dispelling incorrect narratives about sign language, however, as academic institutions also play a role in increasing its accessibility. 

BSL at Academic Institutions

After examining 35 London Universities and Institutions of Higher Learning, Roar found that 14 Universities actively offered a BSL society or BSL short courses. Universities such as the University of Roehampton and City University of London even offered BSL as a part of their course modules, with the former offering BSL as part of their ‘Media, Culture and Language’ module and the latter, an ‘Introduction to Language Therapy in BSL‘. Many of the remaining Universities offer interpreters if requested.

University College London has set a precedent for accessibility, providing its own BSL courses, Sign Language Society, Sign Language Summer School, Interpreters, and even its own Signbank, which allows both staff and students to contribute to educating the student body on BSL.

These developments come at a fundamental time, when “Teaching Units for deaf children keep closing” and the oldest deaf school in the UK closed in 2015. The UK is reported to only have 22 deaf schools left.

Whilst mainstream schools themselves are not the issue, they typically lack sufficient resources to ensure equal access to education for Deaf children. Limited access to interpreters, language barriers and social isolation are only a few of the problems encountered, and whilst no Deaf experience is the same, a large number of Deaf students have reported being exhausted after lip reading as their primary means of communication.

When enquired about social isolation and his personal experience with language barriers, Albiston reflected on his experience during a mainstream primary school:

“My primary school was mainstream, but had a unit for Deaf children. There were about 15 of us in all. This was so important for us because it meant we could communicate with each other and form friendships, so we weren’t isolated. A mix of BSL and SSE was used by the Teachers of the Deaf to teach us, and that was how we learned. I can honestly say I do not know where I would be right now without that support.”

His experience in a mainstream secondary school, however, was not as accessible:

“My secondary school was mainstream and I was the only Deaf student there. Whilst I had a Communication Support Worker to interpret for me in class, break and lunch times were often very lonely. I couldn’t follow any conversations and I couldn’t join in. Had BSL been taught in schools, my hearing peers would have known some signs, would have wanted to learn more signs, and it would have made my school experience much better and less isolating.”

Resources for learning BSL

Although only 11.8% of students surveyed answered that they know a form of sign language at any proficiency, 51% agreed and 27.5% strongly agreed that they would be interested in learning BSL. To support this, Roar compiled a list of resources, starting with the BSL Society at King’s.

When polled, 62.7% of students stated that they were unaware of the society, which offers both the Level 1 BSL course, and weekly BSL classes. The KCL BSL society has both an active Instagram and Facebook account and primarily communicates through WhatsApp.

The British sign language dictionary also features thousands of video translations into BSL. However, as mentioned earlier, many regional signs are used which may be difficult for beginner sign language users to recognise. Therefore, British Sign is often recommended by BSL societies for beginners to learn the basics such as grammar.

The National Deaf Children’s Society offers many language learning guides and, perhaps more notably, publishes essential information about the Deaf community. Instagram accounts including ‘@britishdeafassociation’, ‘@deafkidzint’ and ‘@dewa_uk’ provide valuable insight to the achievements, as well as the challenges of the Deaf community in the UK more generally.

With the availability of hundreds of online BSL learning videos, Albiston advises:

“There is no harm checking BSL signs on YouTube channels, but be aware that these may be regional and often they offer two or three signs for the same word. Also, we have words in English that have multiple meanings such as park. Some BSL websites might not make it clear which “park” they are referring to.”

When questioned about the best way to learn sign language, Albiston noted that it would be “from a qualified BSL teacher, as they will teach you the correct signs and grammar structure. However, practising what you have learnt with Deaf BSL users is a great idea.”

As we neared the end of our discussion, the conversation revisited the implementation of BSL in British schools, and what it could mean for the future, for both Deaf and Hearing students. Albiston concluded:

“Learning BSL at school could be the start of some students’ career paths. They may go on to become the next generation of qualified BSL interpreters, of which there is a national shortage. And that can only be a good thing.”



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