23 March 2017

S5M-04789 British Sign Language (Draft National Plan)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-04789, in the name of Mark McDonald, on the consultation on the draft British Sign Language national plan.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

The fifth of May 2015 was a very important day in the life of the Parliament, as it was the day that the Parliament was awarded a charter mark from Action on Hearing Loss. The charter mark is a nationally recognised accreditation for organisations that offer excellent levels of service and accessibility for people who are deaf or who have hearing loss. Perhaps more important is that it was also the day when we started the parliamentary debate on the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill. Mark Griffin came to Parliament on that day to propose that we adopt the general principles of the bill, which we gladly and unanimously did. I was happy to speak in that debate and to support Mark Griffin’s proposals.

Sign language is not simply limited to people who use BSL; we all have our individual sign languages. I have just exchanged signs with the Presiding Officer in order to establish for how long she wants me to speak, and I am quite convinced that I saw her say that I have 27 minutes, although it might be that my ability to read her signs is somewhat incomplete. When we wink, the context makes it clear what we are likely to mean. If I am winking at an attractive young lady—well, members can work out that message. In other circumstances, a wink means something different. If I slap my forehead, I am saying, “I’m being stupid; I’ve forgotten something.” If I wave my hand, it is “Hello.” We are all familiar with the concept of sign language, even if we do not know a single gesture of BSL.

I have one phrase of BSL—let us see whether members know what it means. I am signing, “I am ZS”, which merely leads members to another puzzle. When I worked as a software engineer, the engineers used two letters to represent themselves, and Sammy Stein had stolen SS before I got there, so I became ZS. To this day, my intimates from that period of my life continue to know me as ZS.

There are one or two things about the Government’s consultation that I have not seen before—they are particular to the consultation. First, I very much welcome the fact that people can respond to the consultation by submitting a YouTube video or a Vimeo clip as a GIF—graphics interchange format—file. Given the nature of BSL as a visual language, that is right and proper, but I would not have thought of it myself. It is something that I will try to remember.

In my intervention on the minister’s speech, I mentioned Doric BSL. I was told at the back of the chamber that I had forgotten about the Weegies. I have no idea what that means, of course, coming from somewhere else, as I do.

The consultation document is impressive, but it is also challenging. It contains 55 commitments—members can see that I am using my hand, almost unconsciously, to reinforce my message. I particularly approve of commitments 20 to 22, to which several members referred and which are about offering BSL as a second language. The one-plus-two language initiative in schools is very welcome, because people who learn two languages create in their brains neural pathways that raise their overall academic achievement. I can see that in my family: I have a Danish great-nephew and great-niece whose father is Scots and their mother Danish. They are bilingual, and I can see how that helps their intellectual development.

Commitments 23 and 24 are about support during post-school education, which is also important. A close family member of mine is dyslexic. She had the right support throughout her career, including at university, where someone was able to help her to understand the questions that she could not read properly on exam papers. She graduated with an honours degree and is now a very successful manager of a pharmacological laboratory. She has put her disability, or condition, behind her, simply by getting the right kind of support.

It is worth saying that aspects of this city are relevant in respect of support for people who are deaf. Thomas Braidwood, who lived from 1715 to 1806, founded what is thought to have been the first school for the deaf, here in this city. When Dr Samuel Johnson visited Edinburgh in 1773, he said:

“There is one subject of philosophical curiosity in Edinburgh which no other city has to show; a College for the Deaf and Dumb”.

Dr Joshua Reynolds, the world-famous portrait painter, was deaf, but it did not prevent him from creating an international reputation that endures to this day. John Goodricke, who died in 1786 at the age of 21, was elected to the Royal Society right at the end of his life because he was the first person to spot the periodic nature of illuminations from particular stars and identify the reasons for that. He was a scientist par excellence who was also deaf.

It has been a matter of public policy to take an interest in deafness, and I know that it has also touched democracy. As far as I am aware, there has been only one deaf member of the UK Parliament, Jack Ashley, and he was a special case because he was elected hearing and became deaf.

Let us hope that we can continue with the Government’s excellent document and support people to engage with BSL and, as a wider issue, support people who are deaf.


Stewart Stevenson
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fios ZS is a name registered in Scotland for Stewart Stevenson

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