Creating Linguistic Access for Deaf and
Deafblind People:


2 Background
Deaf People and Linguistic Access

This Report focuses on the rights of deaf and deafblind people to have full linguistic access in all areas of their lives, including education, social work services, health, law, politics and leisure. As has been shown in a range of previous research and reports (for example, The Commission of Enquiry into Human Aids to Communication, 1992; Sensing Progress, 1998; Provision of Communication Support Services for Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing People: A Framework, SASLI, 1997) such access is currently not adequately available across all the above areas. As we shall see, recent and proposed legislation makes it possible, even likely, that unless action is taken urgently, Scottish institutions and authorities may find themselves liable for failing in their duties to enable full access for deaf people.

Jackie Baillie comments in her foreword to the Equality Strategy:
“We are determined to tackle discrimination and disadvantage, to foster respect for diversity of the people of Scotland and to forge new partnerships for change.”

While the Strategy itself stresses:
“Our vision is for a just and inclusive Scotland. A Scotland where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.”
Scottish Executive, 2000, p.1

Our aim in this Report is to face up to the extent to which deaf and deafblind people are currently excluded from Scottish life and culture, but also to suggest ways in which this exclusion can be transformed into inclusion through linguistic access. This Report also demonstrates the positive impact that deaf and deafblind people can have on our society and how they can contribute to its diversity.

Language Preference
We can recognise two groups of deaf people defined by language preference:

It is useful to distinguish the two groups in this way in order to recognise that the difference in linguistic preference brings with it a different set of access requirements. Those in the first group will wish to access services and information primarily in BSL; those in the second group will require access through English.

1 The term ‘Deaf’ using an upper case ‘D’ is often used within the literature to distinguish this group, who see themselves as a linguistic and cultural minority from ‘deaf’ people (using a lower case ‘d’) who have a hearing loss, but who do not see themselves as forming a separate linguistic and cultural grouping. However, for ease of use within this account, the term ‘deaf’ will refer to both groups. BSL-using deaf people will be referred to as Deaf whenever it is necessary to identify them separately.

However, it should also be noted that while Deaf Community members may have a preference for BSL, they will also typically make some use of English. This means that they too will often seek access additionally through visual English, for example, through subtitling. Indeed, it can be demonstrated that the use of English within the Deaf Community has increased substantially through the exploitation of technical resources, such as text phones, the internet, WAP phones and the like.

It is worth stressing that for Deaf Community members, English is an additional language: in its spoken form, it can never be fully accessible. Moreover, we know that full access to English literacy has not been possible for many deaf children and adults. While changes in the education of deaf children and young people may begin to reverse this situation, English will often act primarily as a support to access, rather than providing full access for Deaf Community members. Of course, the increased availability of visual English will itself promote and support fuller access to English literacy by deaf children and adults. If more explicit policies are developed which can support the development of English-based literacy, then we can envisage an increase in the use of English by Deaf Community members.

Just as there is a place for English as an additional language for members of the Deaf Community, there may also be a place for BSL as an additional language for deafened or deaf people whose first language is English or another spoken language. This does not mean that we should ignore the rights of such deaf people to have access through English. Rather, just as many hearing people now learn BSL for interest, deaf and deafened people may well be able to improve the quality of their lives and their communication options by having opportunities to learn and use BSL.

Numbers of Deaf People

Unfortunately we do not have precise information either on the numbers of deaf people or on the number of BSL users. It is disappointing that the recent Census which could have gathered such information, failed to do so. There are working estimates. The numbers of Deaf people using BSL is usually put at around 70,000 – 80,000 for the UK as a whole (eg; figures from the BDA).

However, any figure of BSL users should be widened to include family members and others who also use BSL, though not necessarily as their primary language. The RNID estimates that 1 in 7 of the adult population has some kind of hearing loss and therefore may benefit from support for accessing English, such as subtitling and lipreading abilities.

Barriers to Inclusion and Equality

Deaf people face a range of barriers, which work against them, being fully included within society and which deny them equal rights. These barriers can be summed up under two key headings;

Last updated 06.Mar.03

Scottish Sensory Centre

Moray House School of Education
University of Edinburgh
Holyrood Road