Ten years on: from BSL recognition to ‘Spit the Dummy’

So, here we are. Ten years ago to the day, the UK government ‘recognises’ BSL. Six years after the Federation of Deaf People (FDP) was set up, which kick-started a political campaign to fight for recognition, here came the announcement.  £1m was thrown in to support the statement (later increased to £1.5m); it was allocated to several different organisations.

A ‘timeline’ to recognition has been put up on the Grumpy Old Deafies website, and today saw the launch of the very welcome ‘Deaf Heritage’ website.* The later, in particular, is especially important, as it shows the level of activism, and the vital role of the FDP in achieving recognition.

Ten years on we have the ‘spit the dummy’ campaign, re-starting up what was not achieved: a ‘BSL Act’. This made me think that if I was to make a film about Deaf activism in the UK, in ten years time, I would probably detail how the statement came about, and then flash up on the screen the words ‘Ten years later’. Indicating that in between that time, we’ve been walking along the bottom of a valley, occasionally pausing to admire the views above us. [These last years have consisted largely of defensive campaigns, e.g. to stop various cuts (e.g. Centre for Deaf Studies, Bristol; Deaf schools), stop withdrawal of DLA, stop legislating to deny reproductive liberty to Deaf couples, etc.]

So, was this campaign to get the government to recognise BSL a success? I enter Vicky Pollard mode: ‘yeah but, no but, yeah but, no but,’ etc.  If we measure success by the statement, it would appear minimal.  All those video’s being posted up on the spit the dummy Facebook page demonstrate there remains a severe lack of access to services, and negative attitudes towards Deaf people remain. My PhD research, Citizenship and the Deaf community, which I started just six months before the statement was announced, also highlighted how Deaf people’s citizenship is ‘thin’ – i.e. in all areas of civil, political and social citizenship, their status could best be described as second class. The evidence is there, underwritten by two factors in particular: the refusal to allow Deaf people to participate in jury service, and the failure to adjust teacher training courses so that Deaf people can become fully qualified teachers of deaf children.

And, of course, recognition was not enshrined in law: many of us urged ‘carry on campaigning’. Many of us did continue, or try to.

But there is definitely cause for cracking open the champagne today. Celebrating the statement is mainly a celebration of the political activism that led to it. I recall the time prior to the setting up of the FDP: political apathy was said to be high: ‘nobody is interested in politics’. As if to confirm it, the 2001 election in the UK passed by virtually unnoticed, with turnout at an 80 year low. Yet here were Deaf people and their allies, up and down the country, enthusiastically participating in marches (national and local), direct action, and lobbying MP’s and councillors to get BSL recognised.

The ‘Spit The Dummy’ campaign is very welcome. It is too early to be analysing and assessing it.  The organisers need all the support they can get, especially as it has started out as a genuinely grassroots campaign. It is curious it is happening at a time when government cuts are beginning to be felt.  One of the main obstacles towards achieving an Act is not only ideological; it would require money in the same way Welsh or Scots Gaelic does. It will be interesting to see how these  issues are addressed.  Inequality may have been present before the cuts took place, but with no end in sight it appears as if Deaf people in the UK have had enough of second class citizenship.

*Found via Facebook, thanks to postings by Jen Dodds and Ian Glover, and also Grumpy Old Deafies


  1. Hiya Steve
    Good to see Tiger Deafie and others marking 10 years of BSL ‘recognition’ with some stirring stuff. This isn’t really to add to that, but just to note that 18 March was also 10 years to the day since Paddy Ladd’s monumental book was published: ‘Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhoood’ (Multilingual Matters (01275-876519)). It was marked at the time with at least one very good review, which is still online:
    So, although Paddy had been developing the concept(s) of Deafhood for years before that, you could say it’s 10 years of Deafhood in the sense that the book put it into the wider public domain in a very specific way.
    To call Paddy’s book a landmark publication would be almost to underestimate its importance, as shown by the way the concept has been taken up across the world – unfortunately more so, it seems, in some other countries than in the UK. But the book is worth returning to, re-applying – and turning into ACTION – again and again, and in many ways has had even greater beneficial repercussions than the ‘recognition’ (without legislation) of BSL by the UK Government. In the battle to turn that ‘recognition’ into more concrete achievements through legislation, Paddy’s book should be one of the most powerful tools and sources of inspiration for all who toil.
    By and large the 10th anniversary of ‘recognition’, while ‘recognised’ and marked, has not been made enough of. But by comparison, the lack of celebration and true recognition of what Paddy did and the ten years of positive developments that have come out of it, is actually quite shameful.
    I’m sure you and many others who know the man and his work would agree, and I hope we may see more proper recognition, discussion and promotion of Deafhood as well as BSL in years to come.
    All the best.

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