History repeats itself! Signs of the Times

Congratulations to Dawn Butler MP for being the first MP to ask a Parliamentary Question in Sign
Language (BSL) in the House of Commons. I was delighted to be asked to comment on Radio 4’s Today programme the next day (here I am at 1 hour 40 minutes in). But my good friend Dawn wasn’t the first to use BSL in the House!

I’d done so in a half hour debate on Deaf Awareness training late at night back in April 1998. I signed the last paragraph as I spoke, whilst up in the Strangers Gallery a BSL interpreter translated for the benefit of 20 Deaf people who had come for the occasion. My speech, interpreted later by John Lea, was later made into a VHS video (pictured) and distributed. This was before the days of social media!

I had a later debate, in April 2000, about BSL itself; and from 1998-2003 I sat as a trustee (my first time on a major national charity board) for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (now Action on Hearing Loss). I’m still a patron of the National Association of Deafened People and in the period before I went to Parliament, 1993-97, I worked as a consultant on deaf people’s access to mainstream services.

Even I wasn’t the first to use BSL in the House of Commons, though I was the first on TV: (later Sir) Malcolm Bruce used BSL briefly in the 1980s, though as this was before television came to the Commons there’s no record.

Dawn’s intervention – made at peak time of the Parliamentary day! – created a sensation amongst Deaf people on Twitter, another Sign of the times. And it deserved to, because my campaign was for legal recognition of BSL, which happened in 2003. Hers was to go beyond that, to try to establish a right for Deaf people to be able to use BSL when accessing key services such as health, law, etc. To his credit, Leader of the House David Liddington in his reply did reply that the Department for Education was about to announce that fluency in BSL would be accepted as an equivalent qualification to fluent spoken English in apprenticeships. Which is a great step forward.

Well done, Dawn!