At the moment, if a student at York wished to learn British Sign Language (BSL) at the University of York, the Careers Service is the only place to go. The course costs £25 and provides seven weeks of teaching, not enough for a qualification. However, starting with a suggestion made during a freshers’ welcome talk at the beginning of this year, the campaign to offer BSL as part of Languages For All (LFA) has been growing. The tutor has agreed to move departments and LFA management has agreed to hold the classes. But the University is still withholding funding, seeking evidence of student support.
According to the 2011 census, 50,000 people in the UK use BSL as their first language, and Ethnologue estimate there to be 250,000 competent users (level 2 or above) worldwide. It was recognised as a formal language by the government in 2003. It is vital to the inclusion of the Deaf Community, as a language barrier is a major obstacle in everyday and social situations. It should not, therefore, be classed differently to any spoken language.
The current system at the University, treats BSL as a way to further employability, rather than a language to study and use in its own right. The course content emphasises the ‘issues’ and ‘common misconceptions’ faced by the community, implying throughout that the language is a way to compensate for deafness, rather than something of intrinsic worth and interest.
As an LFA course, learning BSL would still increase employability, just as taking any other language on the scheme. However, it would be taught to the higher standard of a level 1 qualification, and therefore would better educate the student. Furthermore, the course would be free, meaning those wishing to communicate better with their deaf friends, or even simply taking a casual interest in the language, are able to begin building their knowledge without forking out £25. While it is not as widely used as Spanish, Mandarin or Arabic, all of which are taught in LFA, those who rely on it are far less likely to have a second language. If the University offers courses in Medieval Latin, there is little reason why BSL, a living language, should receive lesser treatment. The University has a firm policy for the inclusion of disabled students, and teaching BSL should be a part of that.
Thomas Ron, Disabled Students’ Officer, who is supporting Naomi Barrow in her campaign wrote: ‘this is the final step […] All we need is for the University to agree the funding and for that we need solid student support.’ He has set up a petition for students to demonstrate their desire for the course, and at the time of writing, it stands at 411 out of an aimed 500 signatures. But ultimately, the question of why the University should offer BSL as an LFA is secondary. What we should be asking is: why doesn’t it already?