Illustration of hands spelling out BSL

British Sign Language in Scotland

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It is estimated that 151,000 people in the UK use British Sign Language (BSL), and that 87,000 of them are d/Deaf. The numbers come from the charity British Deaf Association (BDA) which has published an information sheet with information about BSL. BDA describes sign languages as:

[…] “fully functional and expressive languages; at the same time they differ profoundly from spoken languages. BSL is a visual-gestural language with a distinctive grammar using handshapes, facial expressions, gestures and body language to convey meaning.”

BDA writes that BSL is separate from spoken English and is mainly used in Great Britain. Other English-speaking countries have their own sign languages. Irish Sign Language (ISL) is used in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and American Sign Language (ASL) is used in the United States. 

When reading about BSL it is common to come across the distinction Deaf with a capital D and deaf. The charity SignHealth explains the reason for the distinction:

“The word deaf is used to describe or identify anyone who has a severe hearing problem. Sometimes it is used to refer to people who are severely hard of hearing too.

We use Deaf with a capital D to refer to people who have been deaf all their lives, or since before they started to learn to talk. They are pre-lingually deaf. It is an important distinction, because Deaf people tend to communicate in sign language as their first language. For most Deaf people English is a second language, and understanding complicated messages in English can be a problem.

There is a very strong and close Deaf community with its own culture and sense of identity, based on a shared language.”

Scotland’s Census 2011 for the first time asked the question ‘Do you use a language other than English at home?’ The results are analysed in the publication Census 2011 equality results: analysis, part two, which includes a section on BSL users. Based on the responses the publication states that it is estimated that around 12,500 people in Scotland use BSL at home and that this makes it 24 BSL users per 10,000 individuals. Scotland’s Census 2022 will ask ‘Can you use BSL?’ for the first time.

BSL was recognised as a minority language by the UK Government in 2003, however, Scotland is so far the only country in the UK that has given BSL recognition in law. The BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 made it a legal requirement for the Scottish Government and public bodies to promote, and facilitate the promotion of, the use and understanding of BSL. It became mandatory to produce a plan to outline how this would be done. 

Scottish Government’s National Plan

The BSL National Plan 2017-2023 outlines the Scottish Government’s strategy for supporting BSL in Scotland. The plan covers the Scottish Government as well as the over 50 national public bodies that Scottish Ministers are responsible for. The intentions for the BSL National Plan are expressed in the Executive Summary:

“The Scottish Government wants to make Scotland the best place in the world for BSL users to live, work and visit. This means that people whose first or preferred language is BSL will be fully involved in daily and public life in Scotland, as active, healthy citizens, and will be able to make informed choices about every aspect of their lives.”

Other public bodies such as local authorities, regional NHS boards, colleges/universities and the Scottish Parliament had to produce their own plans.

The BSL National Plan set 10 long term goals for BSL in Scotland and listed 70 actions that the Scottish Government had to take before 2020 in its work towards these. 

National Plan: progress report

The British Sign Language – national plan: progress report was published in October 2021 (delayed from its original publication date by the COVID-19 pandemic). It highlights progress made in the areas of education, interpretation, response to the pandemic, and public life and society. The Government states that highlights include live BSL interpreting at the daily Scottish Government coronavirus briefings, and a doubling of the number of local authorities that have schools which offer BSL as a second additional language. 

The report concludes with the Government’s view that the profile of BSL has been raised considerably in Scotland. But it also notes that many actions points are still outstanding or incomplete and that the Scottish Government will work to address these.

Scottish Parliament’s BSL Plan

The Scottish Parliament’s own British Sign Language plan 2018-2024 has resulted in an increase of information available in BSL. First Ministers Questions and selected debates are interpreted live and available on Parliament TV’s BSL channel. The Scottish Parliament’s BSL Development Officer leads on the delivery of the BSL plan, working closely with all offices in the Parliament to raise awareness and develop services for BSL visitors and the wider BSL community. He is also the principal point of contact between the Parliament and BSL user communities, and produces a regular BSL e-Bulletin with updates about parliamentary business.  

Resources for public bodies

The Scottish Government website BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 has updates about the work being carried out by public bodies to support the use of BSL and includes links to a range of BSL resources. 

The Scottish Parliament’s BSL Development Officer can be contacted by email:

Lena Phalen, Enquiries Officer

With thanks to

Mark McMillan, BSL Development Officer

Image source: SPICe