Deaf charities are backing Rose Ayling Ellis’ call on the Government to provide free access to British Sign Language (BSL) lessons for the parents and guardians of all deaf children.
In a BBC documentary, Signs for Change, the Strictly Come Dancing winner explores the world of deafness and meets Katie Littlejohns, whose son Alvie, two, has moderate deafness.
With the support of the British Deaf Association and the National Deaf Children’s Society, Katie set up a petition calling for free BSL tuition for the families of deaf children, which received almost 27,000 signatures.
The Government response to the petition was that BSL lessons are available via adult education budget funding, but the two charities say that many families do not qualify, cannot access the appropriate courses, or find they are already oversubscribed.
“Sign language can help ensure and support effective communication within families with deaf children,” said Martin McLean, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Senior Policy Advisor.
“However, the funding earmarked by local authorities for BSL tuition is insufficient, meaning that most parents wanting to learn BSL to any meaningful level will have to fork out hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds in tuition fees.
“The funding is also inconsistent. Some local authorities provide funding for BSL tuition, while others don’t, leading to a postcode lottery. This risks preventing many parents from creating a fully inclusive home environment to enable their children to thrive.
“Amidst the cost-of-living crisis, it is wrong that families may have to choose between learning a language that is vital for their children, or simply paying their electricity bill.
“The Government must make sure local authorities have the money to offer free sign language classes for families of deaf children as early as possible, no matter where they live in the UK.”
There is evidence of widespread language deprivation among deaf people, which has lifelong damaging effects on cognitive development and mental health.
The National Deaf Children’s Society believes early access to language is vital for deaf children to develop and thrive. Without it, deaf children are at a huge disadvantage, and risk ongoing challenges throughout their lives.
In 2022, the British Sign Language Bill was passed, recognising BSL as an official language of England, Scotland and Wales. The Department for Education in England is also working towards a new BSL GCSE qualification, which it says will be available in schools from September.