Census 2021: Promoting engagement with the Census amongst deaf communities in the UK

In this new mini-series, we meet some of the researchers who are delivering public engagement projects as part of the AHRC-ESRC joint fund ‘Engaging the Public in Census 2021’, which is run in partnership with the Office for National Statistics and the National Archives. In our second post, Professor Graham Turner from Heriot-Watt University shares insight into his project, SEEING SIGNING LIVING: From Demographic Deaficit to Census Consensus which is working to promote participation and engagement with the 2021 Census amongst the UK’s diverse deaf communities. SEEING SIGNING LIVING is delivered in partnership with Signs@HWU, a team of academics at Heriot-Watt University who specialise in sign language, multilingualism and interpreting Deaf cultural studies, and Deaf Explorer, a team of creative producers who support D/deaf artists.

BSL and the 2021 Census

Contextualising British Sign Language

After a year in which we have seen how important effective communication can be, now may be an especially good time to shine a light on what should be the most visible language in the UK. British Sign Language (BSL) may have been around since at least the Middle Ages, and has been described with increasing precision by linguists since the 1970s. Still, any deaf signer can tell you about their experiences of invisibility under the disparaging gaze of the wider society.

In common with the scores of other signed languages around the world, BSL is a visual-gestural language with no everyday written form. Signing uses the hands, body and face to produce complex, multi-layered constructions, using 3D space as a grammatical resource. National signed languages are therefore wholly distinct from the spoken languages alongside which they exist. English is a second language to most BSL signers, and access to it is limited.

Applied linguists draw out two key features of the social context surrounding BSL. Firstly, deaf people are, in the terms familiar from contemporary models of disability, disabled by the experience of living in an environment designed primarily for people who hear and speak. Many signers strongly identify as members of a linguistic minority, rejecting frameworks that treat disability as a matter of individual pathology. This intersection between constructs of disability and language is uniquely occupied by deaf signers. Secondly, over 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents with no previous exposure to signing. Their early language experiences are therefore often highly disadvantageous.

BSL and the Census

The 2011 Census in the UK was the first to ask questions about the use of languages other than Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Each UK nation conducts its own census, and the question about signed language was phrased and contextualised differently in each. Unsurprisingly, this led to different outcomes. Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, approximately 20-30 people per 100,000 name BSL as their ‘main language’. The figure for Scotland, however – 245 per 100,000 – indicates a proportion of BSL signers 10 times larger north of the border. No-one disputes that something here is not quite right.

One explanatory factor is that Scotland was, in 2011, beginning the process of consultation and dialogue that ultimately led to the passing of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015. This legislation made Scotland unique in the UK, formalising recognition of BSL through a commitment to an open-ended cycle of National Plans which would be designed to promote the use and understanding of BSL. (The first National Plan was published in 2017 and contains 70 actions to be progressed by 2023 across all areas of Scottish public life.)

The Scottish focus on the home language, rather than the main language which was the focus elsewhere, is also significant. No matter that BSL may be the language with which an individual most identifies, it is for many people futile to hope to use it in most everyday situations. Few workplaces are occupied by a majority of signers, for instance. No-one’s email is delivered in BSL. Baristas rarely sign. Websites are geared heavily towards the written word. There are also, as a result of the family transmission issue noted above, significant barriers to establishing signing in the majority of households that include deaf people. In this light, there are clear reasons for uncertainty about what the Census tells us about the BSL population.

Does this matter? The answer is an unambiguous ‘yes’. The Census is designed as an opportunity accurately to describe the population of these isles, in order to understand its profile and to shape policy, services and infrastructure appropriately. But beyond such necessary and laudable functions, doesn’t everyone deserve to be seen by their fellow citizens at least once in each decade?   

Countdown to the 2021 Census

Looking anew at BSL in the 2021 Census

The Office for National Statistics (and equivalent bodies around the UK) has reviewed the Census questions presented this time. Renewed efforts have been made to use BSL in public messaging encouraging participation. A series of signed explanatory videos, presented by deaf people, is available giving guidance on the intentions of each question. It seems unlikely that we will see a repeat of the reported 2011 data showing 12,533 BSL signers in Scotland, yet only 15,826 in the rest of the UK as a whole.

It’s already clear that the signing community is self-organising to ensure that people know how to navigate the Census interface in order to record their association with BSL. Video clips are being shared via social media by signers of every generation giving directions as to how to use the category of ‘other’ languages as a way of opening the appropriate space in which to note BSL one’s ‘main’ language. “Don’t forget to tell your hearing parents, too, kids!” signs one deaf youth in a Facebook video. “Maybe they don’t realise that they can answer ‘BSL’ to the relevant question!” There’s no doubt at all that the community felt overlooked in 2011 and has no desire to let this happen again. It’s time to stand up, sign up, and be counted.

The SEEING SIGNING LIVING project acts as a beacon for BSL in Census 2021. With the cultural and arts production company Deaf Explorer and associated artists, we are curating an online festival celebrating and making visible signing communities, championing the power of the census as a pathway to their recognition, encouraging deaf people to participate in census processes, sharing information about the implications of censuses, and inspiring signers to generate value for themselves from census findings.

The signing population in the UK is our primary audience, but this initiative is relevant to some 17 million signers worldwide. In every country on earth, the hearing majority misunderstands and undervalues signers: in every country, better social and linguistic science, and population data that properly sees the significance of signing, can truly transform lives.

Graham H. Turner was appointed Chair of Translation & Interpreting Studies at Heriot-Watt University in 2005, the first British Professor in the field to specialize in Sign Language Studies. A former elected Hon Secretary of the British Association for Applied Linguistics, he has focused on social and applied sign linguistics since his initial position in 1988 as a researcher for the British Deaf Association’s Dictionary of British Sign Language/English project. Graham has led a number of innovative teaching and research programmes, including laying the foundations in Edinburgh for the Signs@HWU team at Heriot-Watt University. This academic work, collaborating with a wide range of partners, has primed award-winning social and community impact at national and international levels.

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