The British Deaf Association (BDA) is pleased to see that the 2021 Census managed to reach and count more deaf BSL signers in England and Wales, an increase of nearly 50% in overall numbers since 2011.
Yesterday (29 November 2022), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released data1 on languages used in England and Wales, as reported through the 2021 Census in these nations. (Data for Northern Ireland and Scotland will be released separately.)
We are grateful to the Census team who reached out to deaf organisations, including BDA and the Royal Association for Deaf People (RAD), to make the 2021 Census much more accessible.
Nevertheless, we believe there is still work to be done to obtain an accurate picture of the BSL population. A careful analysis2 contrasting 2011 data in England and Wales with that of Scotland – where a more appropriate question was asked – leads to the conclusion that a figure of some 70,000 deaf signers across the UK (6,500 of these being in Scotland) could be considered more credible. Notice that this figure represents deaf signers only. A figure at least twice as large – i.e. in the region of 150,000 – can be anticipated if all BSL signers are included. The annual GP survey3 consistently measures BSL users as 0.3% to 0.5% of adult patients, with robust methodology.
The ONS itself reports that the 2021 Census figure shows an increase of over 6,000 BSL signers in England and Wales since 2011. “Nobody in our British Deaf community would believe that the signing population has increased by some 40% in a decade. What the updated figure shows is that the ONS has improved its ability to reach the BSL community,” says Rebecca Mansell, CEO of the BDA. “That is welcome, and shows what can be done through effective partnership.”
One problem is that the central language question posed by the Census changes the outcomes reported (e.g. asking about respondents’ 'main language' or 'home language' produces quite different results). Asking a single question about ‘main language’ (as the 2021 England and Wales Census did) is not a sufficient way to identify users of BSL. Users of other minority languages in the UK agree4.
Work also needs to be done on deaf people's perception of their language use and to take into account those who use more than one language in different circumstances, e.g. BSL for direct communication and English or another language for written communication.
We hope that the 2021 Census is just the start of a better working relationship between the ONS and the Deaf community. If the authorities really want to know about the signing population in the UK – and they should, if they are truly committed to enacting the laws passed in 2015 (by the Scottish Parliament) and 2022 (by the UK Parliament) – then they should work closely with the BDA and the signing community to continue to improve the Census.
We therefore invite the newly-appointed Deaf Co-Chair of the Government’s BSL Advisory Board5, Craig Crowley, to make addressing the gaps in this absolutely crucial demographic data an early priority. The BDA, with RAD and other allies in the community, offers our full support to carry this out.
2Turner, G. H. (2020) ‘How many people use British Sign Language? Scotland’s 2011 census and the demographic politics of disability and linguistic identity’. In J. Kopaczyk and R. Ó Maolalaigh (eds.) Language on the Move across Contexts and Communities, 37-70. Aberdeen: FRLSU. See the full paper here: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/sll/documents/Ch3-Turner.pdf.
3GP Patient Survey 2022 results - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
4Improving the census question on ‘language’ could help repair community relations and Britain’s international image post-Brexit (manchester.ac.uk).
5Co-chair appointed to BSL Board advising Government on key issues for Deaf people - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).