According to Schools Minister Nick Gibb, one of the core aims of education is to instil in young people the ‘social and emotional aspects of learning’, including those of participation and inclusivity. And yet today, the education system is alienating the eleven million deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK by its refusal to include British Sign Language in the academic syllabus.
According to government data, deaf people are more likely to experience mental health problems in their lifetimes, with up to 50% expressing struggles. Many mental health issues stem from, or are partially brought on by, a feeling of social exclusion or isolation and this in turn is born out of a breakdown in communication with others.
Analysis conducted last year by The National Deaf Children’s Society found that deaf pupils in England struggle at every stage of their education, with Chief Executive Susan Daniels commenting, ‘Deaf children arrive at school with amazing potential only to begin a lifetime of being left behind‘. Thanks to support services cuts and lack of generalised inclusivity, there persists to be a significant attainment gap between deaf pupils and hearing children.
In 2017, the government undertook research and analysis of Saleem, a 22 year old profoundly deaf person from Blackburn. At the time, Saleem was unemployed and decided to return to college in the hopes of gaining the skills to open up opportunities for himself in the workplace. However, the interpreter provided for him on his catering course was unqualified and under-experienced, leading to a heightened anxiety in, and pressure of, the classroom environment.
Saleem told researchers that his life could be made easier if subtitles were more widely used across media and online platforms, and if their accuracy were heightened. But he also listed among his wishes that wanted British Sign Language (BSL) to be used more commonly.
British Sign Language is the most common form of sign language in the UK with 125,000 adult users, as well as 20,000 child users. The In Schools Project is a scheme set up by the School of Sign Language with the ultimate vision to ‘promote understanding between Deaf and hearing people and educate future generations in adopting inclusive attitudes‘. It is their hope that over time, deafness will cease to be an educational or social barrier and that BSL can become a preferred choice of language for many more BSL and hearing people. They also offer a recognised GCSE qualification in BSL, something the government has so far failed to implement in comprehensive schools, despite lawyers suggesting its exclusion could be ‘discriminatory and unlawful‘.
The core goal of education should be to promote inclusivity and accessibility, and yet thousands of children are being left behind by an educational system that refuses to recognise their ability differences. All school children should have the opportunity of gaining exposure to BSL, not only for the sake of deaf or hard of hearing children, but to promote more inclusive attitudes and make the world a better, more diverse place for all.