Office for Disability Issues try to define “disability”

I got an email the other day, as you do, about some consultation on draft guidance from the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) on the Equality Act 2010. The guidance sets out an “illustrative and non-exhuastive” list of the factors that might be considered when deciding if someone is disabled or not in the courts. They say “non-exhaustive” though they clearly had a good try. An attempt to try and describe what an elephant looks like if there ever was one.

Anyhow, the email expressed fear that the guidance is saying that British Sign Language users would not be regarded as disabled. This is because in the list of what should not be regarded as a factor in deciding if someone is disabled, it says:

“Inability to converse in a language which is not the speaker’s native language”

It’s not particularly clear, but my guess is that the intention is to highlight that one is not disabled just because one speaks a different language. So people who speak Welsh are not disabled, for example. Nor is my sign language interpreter.

Does this mean that under the guidance that deaf British Sign Language users would not be regarded as being disabled? I’m not a legal expert but I don’t think so. Looking at the list of factors that should be considered in deciding if someone has a disability, it says:

“Difficulty hearing someone talking at a sound level which is normal for everyday conversations, and in a moderately noisy environment.”

“Difficulty hearing and understanding another person speaking clearly over the voice telephone.”

“Taking longer than someone who does not have an impairment to say things.”

So, on the face of it, deaf children and young people would clearly be regarded as disabled under this guidance, whether or not they used sign language. That said, the line on native languages is not particularly clear and is a bit unhelpful. I understand NDCS plans to respond to the consultation to suggest to the ODI that this should be clearer.

As an aside, it’s quite an interesting list. I haven’t yet read the whole document but considering the ODI are meant to follow the social model of disability, the list sometimes reads a rather negative list focusing on the inadequacies of disabled people, rather than the inadequacies of the world around them in failing to ensure disabled people have full access. I now also seem to be doubly disabled – “Persistant difficulty in remembering the names of familiar people” also makes it on the list. Oh dear.

Be interested, as always, to hear your thoughts.


Update: BSL still not equal in status to other languages, said Government

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Those with long memories might remember from a previous blog posting that the Government was proposing to introducing new laws which would require primary school children to learn a moderen foreign language. The National Deaf Children’s Society felt that these would discourage schools from teaching British Sign Language (BSL) and didn’t gave BSL the same status as modern foreign languages.

Do you want the good news first? Well, the proposals to make primary school children learn a new language were abandoned by the Government a few weeks back, just before Parliament was dissolved for the general election.

The bad news? The proposals weren’t abandoned because of a change of heart, but to get other new laws through in the short term then available. Judging by correspondence from around the same time, the Government hasn’t really changed its mind on BSL. Warm words aside, the Government is sticking to its definition of languages, not realising that the creation of a definition of languages which excludes BSL is arbitrary and therefore, discriminatory. As well as offensive to those who communicate in BSL. Why is BSL less valuable than Welsh or Mandarin that schools shouldn’t be free to teach it in schools if they want to do so?

Because there is no change of heart, it means that these proposals could return to Parliament, depending on the outcome of the general election. I’m on red alert.

More detail from NDCS on the issue is on their website. In the meantime, what are your views? What are your thoughts on how to make the decision-makers realise that, duh!, BSL should have the same status as other modern foreign languages?

Update: BSL not equal to other languages, says Government

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A while ago I blogged about how the Children, Schools and Families Bill might discourge primary schools from the option of teaching British Sign Language if they want to. NDCS has been exchanging a lot of emails recently with the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) to try and get to the bottom of this.

The good news is that DCSF officials have been willing to engage with us and respond to our questions, which is much appreciated. The bad news is that I completely disagree with pretty much everything they’ve said on this issue.

Going through the arguments, they’ve used…

DCSF say: BSL is not a “modern foreign language”.

I say: The definition in the Bill of language as a “modern foreign language” is arbitrary. BSL is as ‘foreign’ to the English language as is Welsh, which officials have confirmed would be permissible as a modern foreign language.

DCSF say: They want to exclude ‘dead’ languages, like Latin,

I say: Why not just use the definition “modern languages” then?

DCSF say: The proposed programme of study is to require students to “speak” and “listen” in another language

I say: This is a narrow and arbitrary definition of what learning a language involves. BSL is still a language even though it does not involve speaking or listening. BSL does, however, require students to demonstrate productive and receptive skills – that should be regarded as equally important as ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’. Besides, you don’t need to physically speak or listen to a language to understand it. I got a pretty good grade in my French GCSE and I’m as deaf as a dodo.

DCSF say: The proposed programme of study aims to enable children to develop understanding of everyday life, traditions and cultures in other countries.

I say: Aaaarrrghh! Clearly, DCSF have missed the memo about there being such a thing as a deaf community, with its own everyday life, traditions and cultures. Besides, aren’t there other benefits to BSL being more mainstream, like creating a more inclusive and welcoming society that values disabled people, that are as valuable and as important and learning a new foreign language?

DCSF say: A school can still teach BSL, just not as a modern foreign language.

I say: Schools will have to disapply the curriculum or find extra time within the curriculum to teach it in addition to a modern foreign language. I don’t think primary schools have oodles of time. Besides, we’re missing the key point of principle: that BSL should have the same status as other languages.

The Children, Schools and Families Bill has moved to the Lords, where we’re hoping to get this issue raised there. NDCS has just updated their briefing on this issue – which you can download from their website. And watch this space for more info.

Government to discourage teaching of sign language in primary schools?

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I’ve blogged about some of my ‘official’ work on the Children, Schools and Families Bill. But I’ve also been doing some extra-curricular ‘unofficial’ lobbying work behind the scenes, trying to get clarification on something quite worrying…

In a nutshell, the Bill proposes a new law whereby schools will have to teach primary school children a language. Looking at the small-print, this is defined in the Bill as a “modern foreign language” and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) will decide later what languages schools will be able to offer in meeting this requirement.

Alarms bell rang when I read this because British Sign Language is, by definition, not a ‘foreign’ language. It’s an official Government bells-on recognised language in this country. So I emailed the civil servants working on the Bill to get to the bottom of this.

The answer? Not good. Schools will not be able to teach British Sign Language and meet this new primary school languages requirement. I was told that there would be nothing to stop them teaching it as a separate subject if they wanted to. But the signal sent to schools will be quite clear – British Sign Language, which is the first language of around 70,000 people in this country, does not have the same status as languages like French or Mandarin in our schools.

I don’t know about you but as a deaf person, I’m quite offended by that.

Malcolm Bruce MP (who signs himself) has written to DCSF for an explanation. Hopefully, this will prompt the Government to think again…

I’ll blog again soon with more news, but leave a comment below if you’re as offended as I am, or have any other thoughts.

New sign language project launches

Back in February 2008, Malcolm Bruce MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness in Westminster, asked Gordon Brown during Prime Minister’s Questions about support for sign language users. Fast forward to today and a consortium of deaf organisations were formally launching the I-sign project and celebrating £800,000 of investment from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to undergo work to raise the status of sign language in England.

I think the i-sign project is a really important and innovative project. It’s been going since early this year and brings together various strands of work which different organisations are leading on, including NDCS, BDA, Signature, RNID and others. NDCS is leading on developing a family sign language website to help families of deaf children learn useful signs for engaging with their deaf child. And we’re taking a close interest in the work being undertaken by Signature to develop a qualifications framework for communication support workers. It’s a two year project with ambitions to become self-sustaining. It’s quite refreshing to see different deaf organisations joining forces in this way.

The new Minister for special educational needs, Diana Johnson came along to the event to lend her support and meet some families of deaf children. She was quoted as saying:

“Overcoming the communication barriers experienced by deaf children is key to ensuring they get the best education possible. The Government is committed to providing parents and the school workforce the communication support they need to ensure deaf children fulfil their potential. I am delighted that we are funding such an innovative and exciting project. Developing qualifications for teachers and providing interactive materials for parents to learn sign language will help deaf children communicate effectively both at home and at school.”

And our deaf work experience student, Paul, ended up giving a short speech in front of the Minister about his own experiences growing up as a sign language user. Probably not what he expected when he joined NDCS for the summer – but we like to keep our interns on their toes…

Overall, a good day for deaf children.

Will deaf people be able to access government scheme on apprenticeships?

I popped along to the Houses of Parliament yesterday – as you do – to a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Disability. This is a group of MPs and peers with a stated interest in disability issues who hold meetings once in a while. Yesterday’s meeting was on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, a hefty piece of legislation that is now making its way through the House of Lords.

Lots of Lords and Ladies came, including Lord Young, who is the Government’s spokesperson on apprenticeships in the Lords. He was challenged on the issue of entry requirements for apprenticeships. The Government is creating a new scheme whereby it will guarantee young people an apprentice if they meet certain requirements.

Unfortunately for deaf young people, these certain requirements include GCSEs in English and Maths. Putting to one side the issue of whether deaf children get the right support to be able to fulfill their potential and achieve these GCSEs, is a deaf person whose first language is British Sign Language necessarily going to get or want a GCSE in English?

And yet the scheme seemingly excludes them, ignoring the fact that deaf young people will be able to make use of interpreters, communication support, etc. in an apprenticeship, as in any other job.

I was hoping that Lord Young might stand up and cry out “now that’s what I call discrimination” but instead, he made some warm words about the need to support disabled young people. But he also taked about the need to “strike a balance” and ensure that apprenticeships are “useful” to employers. So it doesn’t seem likely that the Government will abandon the principle of entry requirements anytime soon.

But we don’t plan to shut up about it, and will be continuing to press for these entry requirements to be relaxed for people with disabilities. So watch this space.