The Committee was reminded that the Council, at its meeting on 1st April, had passed the following motion, which had been proposed by Councillor McMullan and seconded by Councillor Heading:
“This Council notes that 15th – 21st March was Sign Language Week, timed with the anniversary of the UK Government formally recognising British Sign Language as a language in its own right on 18th March 2003. However, in 2021 neither British Sign Language nor Irish Sign Language have legal status in Northern Ireland nor are sign languages part of school curricula.
This means at present, that deaf people must rely on the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act (NI) (1995) to secure reasonable adjustments via sign language provision. In order to do so, deaf people are required to identify as ‘disabled’, in sharp contrast to their right to recognition as a cultural and linguistic minority under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
This Council believes that there is a need to create a more accessible and inclusive society in Northern Ireland, through greater learning of sign languages and awareness of Deaf culture.
It further notes this Council’s previous support for the Belfast Statement on Mental Health and Deafness following the 6th World Congress, which met in Belfast in September 2014, to address issues around equal rights for deaf people in mental health care under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Noting the rights of deaf people to recognition as a cultural and linguistic minority under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, this Council expresses its support for the introduction of a Sign Languages Act for Northern Ireland. Further noting Article 24(b) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that requires the State to facilitate the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community, the Council expresses its support for sign languages to be added to school curricula to ensure that all children learn from the earliest opportunity.
Therefore, the Council will write to the Minister for Communities and the Minister for Education to ask when the New Decade, New Approach commitment to a Sign Language Act will be brought forward and further asks that this legislation includes provision for sign languages to be added to the Key Stage 1 and 2 Curriculum, with schools equipped to deliver these courses, as well as the introduction of sign languages as a GCSE for secondary school pupils.”
The City Solicitor informed the Members that a response to the motion has been received from Mr. P. Weir, Minister for Education, and from Mr. T. McAuley, Acting Head of Sign Language Policy Team, on behalf of the Minister for Communities.
Minister Weir had stated that there was currently no statutory requirement for pupils to learn sign language in schools in Northern Ireland. However, young people should be given opportunities to engage with and demonstrate the skill of communication and to transfer their knowledge about communication concepts and skills to real-life meaningful contexts across the curriculum. Pupils were encouraged to become effective communicators by using a range of techniques, forms and media to convey information and ideas creatively and appropriately. Therefore, schools may choose to introduce sign language in this context.
He had pointed out that the curriculum was broad and balanced and that it provided schools with considerable flexibility to adapt what they taught and to use approaches which best suited the learning needs of their pupils. This flexibility afforded the freedom to include learning opportunities, such as sign language, should a school consider this to be a priority for its pupils.
He had gone on to explain that any changes in the current curriculum to make sign language a statutory requirement at Key Stage 1 and 2 level would require a legislative change to the 2007 Minimum Content Order. His officials were liaising with their counterparts in the Department for Communities, which had lead responsibility for taking forward the new Sign Languages Act, to discuss the impact and operational practicalities of the new Act.
The Minister had concluded by stating that, in terms of introducing sign languages as a GCSE qualification at post primary level, the Department for Education (England) was developing content for a potential British Sign Language GCSE and hoped to consult on this later in the year. Following a period of consultation and approval of a qualification by Ofqual, it would then be available for delivery by centres in Northern Ireland. However, it was not possible to provide an accurate timescale for the potential rollout of this qualification at this time.
Mr. McAuley had confirmed that Minister Hargey had welcomed the Council’s interest in this matter and was fully supportive of the need to create a more accessible and inclusive society in Northern Ireland, through greater learning of sign languages and awareness of Deaf culture. The Minister remained committed to the introduction of Sign Language legislation, built upon the principles of equality and social inclusion, to ensure that the Deaf community here had the same rights and opportunities as those in the hearing community and were able to access services in their own language.
He had explained that the Sign Language Policy Team had, over the past few months, been engaging with the Deaf community to outline the legislative timeframes and the options which had been considered for bringing forward a Bill, both in this mandate and the next, in the context of the challenges presented by Covid-19. The Department had taken on board feedback from the Deaf community, not only of the need for legislation, but, more importantly, of the need for the right legislation which would make a difference to their lives, even if it took more time to do so.
Whilst the Minister would have preferred to introduce legislation in the current mandate, responding to the pandemic had reduced the time available to do so. Therefore, despite the best efforts, a Sign Language Bill had not been included in the Department’s Primary Legislation Timetable schedule for the remainder of this mandate. The Minister had recognised that this news would be viewed with disappointment and had directed officials to continue their engagement with the Deaf community to ensure that their views continued to be represented as work towards a future Sign Language Bill in the next mandate progressed. That would include continued engagement with the Council’s Language Officer with responsibility for BSL and ISL.
Mr. McAuley had then addressed that part of the motion referring to “the need to create a more accessible and inclusive society in Northern Ireland, through greater learning of sign languages and awareness of Deaf culture” by pointing out that the Department’s work with the Deaf community promoted respect and understanding of BSL and ISL and Deaf culture.
He had then highlighted the fact that the Department for Communities funded multiple BSL and ISL courses, such as Family Signing Language courses for families with deaf children, to learn together to enhance the crucial early years’ communication which was the foundation for better life outcomes, including academically and emotionally. It also funded some Deaf awareness and sign language classes at primary and secondary school level, as well as some BSL and ISL courses at Levels 3,4 and 6, which were a requirement for a career in, for example, interpreting and translating. Projects and initiatives to promote the awareness of BSL/ISL and Deaf culture to local hearing communities and voluntary and community groups were also funded. He had pointed out that all of these courses were accessible across Northern Ireland and that many beneficiaries resided within the Belfast City Council area.
Mr. McAuley had then made reference to the Council’s previous support for the Belfast Statement on Mental Health and Deafness, following the 6th World Congress, to address issues around equal rights for deaf people in mental health care. He had concluded by stressing that the Department for Communities had been pleased to partner with the conference organisers and support the conference through funding to meet the significant costs of interpreting and translating.
The Members of the Committee agreed to recommend that, in accordance with the Council decision of 4th May, the Chief Executive exercise her delegated authority to note the responses.