Victory in bid to get legal recognition for sign language

A WOKING activist is celebrating the imminent passing of a law to recognise British Sign Language as a language of England, Wales and Scotland in its own right.

Claire Cummings, who lives in Horsell, has been an active member of the BSL Act Now Campaign.

Claire and husband Dave Ingham, with Abbie and Martin Willis, meeting Woking MP Jonathan Lord
Picture: Terry Habgood

The Private Member’s Bill received crucial government support and was approved by the Commons and sent to the Lords, where it has to pass before getting Royal Assent. 

Woking campaigners were one of the first deaf groups in the country to meet their MP to drum up support for the Bill and Jonathan Lord was among the first Conservative MPs to express his backing.

“Sharing this through the BSL Act Now Campaign helped to spread confidence and encouraged more deaf people to contact their MP and set up similar meetings,” Claire said.

“In this way the campaign built wide support for the BSL Bill.”

Last week, Mr Lord met Claire, her husband Dave Ingham, and fellow activists Martin and Abbie Willis in Woking to celebrate the Bill being approved by the Commons.

The Woking MP said: “It is vital we ensure neither deafness nor being hard of hearing is a barrier to participating in society.

“It is my hope that, by recognising BSL as a language in its own right, we will create a more inclusive and accessible society, improving the lives of deaf people and helping public services to get it right.”

Claire said the BSL Bill will have a huge impact on deaf people.

“Currently, as BSL isn’t legally recognised, there is no obligation for services to provide BSL interpreters. This creates significant barriers to equal participation.

“One of the requirements of the BSL Bill is to set up a council to regularly advise on and review how BSL can be included in statutory services. It looks like a GCSE in BSL may be coming; previously the notion was thrown out by the Department for Education as BSL isn’t a written language.”

Claire said awareness and acceptance of BSL has sky-rocketed among the hearing community, partly through the deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis winning Strictly Come Dancing last year and CODA, a film about a deaf couple and their hearing daughter, winning three Oscars, including Best Film and Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur, who is deaf.

Claire works for Surrey County Council, supporting deaf children in schools and nurseries and advising teachers and other staff. She was previously an English teacher at a school in Wandsworth for 18 years.

She was born in Oldham and grew up in Ramsbottom, where she went to specialist deaf schools,  before reading Biology at Durham University. In 1999 she qualified as an English teacher, the first born profoundly deaf person in England to do so, despite having been told she couldn’t enter the profession because she was “too deaf” and “wouldn’t be able to help with speech”.

Claire moved south to work with charities and met her husband, who is also deaf, moving to Horsell with him in 2000.

During the height of the pandemic, she set up Horsell Scrubbers, which made PPE for NHS and care workers. The Horsell Residents Association has paid for BSL interpreters so Claire can lead the spin-off Horsell Scrubbers Hub, which does mending for the community and has made Ukrainian flags for an aid charity. 

Claire and Dave and their younger son Wes, 19, who is not deaf, recently saw the film CODA, an acronym of “child of deaf adults” and said they recognised elements of their own lives.

“The main difference is that our two boys say they had a much more positive experience of being CODAs because Dave and I have tried hard not to use them as interpreters, and especially not when they were children.

“We were determined that they would be free to be children. Recently our older son (Ryan, 21) said to me ‘I‘m a proud CODA’ and his CV says that being a CODA has made him a good communicator.

“Both of them won’t interpret when a hearing person asks what I say; they say ‘talk to my mum, she’s not stupid’ and walk away.

“I love that, as they are showing that communication is everyone’s responsibility,” she said.

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