Deaf culture

Fighting for deaf culture since the 1800s – the history of BSL

Deaf history in the UK is an important part of Deaf culture for native sign language users. Understanding Deaf* history and the impact of Parliamentary decisions on those with profound hearing loss is key to appreciating the barriers faced by sign language users in the modern world. (Deaf* refers to people who are native sign language users that consider themselves as members of a linguistic minority).

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BSL: how, when and where was it invented?

When BSL learners ask “when did BSL start? ” many students are surprised to learn there are historical references to deaf people dating all the way back to Socrates. Here in the UK, there are documents dating back to the 1500s that indicate deaf individuals were part of society and carried out activities such as going to school, working and getting married.  Sign language has been around for as long as people have been able to communicate with each other. Nonetheless, there are key historical dates that mark the modern use of British Sign Language in the UK.

Deaf people have fought for equality for over 100 years. Using BSL is central to Deaf identity. Native sign language users do not see themselves as having a disability but as members of a linguistic minority in the UK. BSL is seen as central to a rich culture, history and community. 

Deaf Schools were central to continuing Deaf Culture

Historically, when deaf children attended schools, they developed a strong sense of community. This carried on into adulthood when adults attended deaf clubs. Clubs enabled people to meet each other without the gaze of non-signers and enjoy each other’s company, play sports, make friends, maybe meet a future partner but most of all, relax and have fun.

Many Deaf schools have closed since the publication of The Warnock Report in 1978. The report advised that children would be better off attending mainstream schools. In recent times, more schools have closed. There are now only 21 deaf schools in the UK. Many children struggled through mainstream schooling.

It is no coincidence that the numbers of young deaf people who experience mental health issues are 3 times higher than the national average. The group called DEX was set up to support Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers who felt disconnected from their language and deaf culture. The lack of collective spaces to continue deaf culture has also had a knock on effect on deaf clubs.

Many deaf clubs have closed. This is partly due to technology which now plays a major part in helping sign language users stay in touch with each other. There are a number of Facebook groups where members discuss popular news topics and other topics of interest.

Special interest groups (camping, climbing, astronomy, environment to name but a few) enable native BSL users to get together. This allows the continuation of BSL and is an opportunity for older sign language users to pass on their knowledge to the younger generation.

When was BSL officially recognised?

 BSL was officially recognised in 2003. More recently, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 was enacted. The BSL Act 2022 was also made law. The 2022 Act recognised British Sign Language as a language of England, Scotland and Wales.

The Act requires the Secretary of State to issue an annual report on the use of BSL in government departments and the promotion of BSL when communicating with the public.

The first report was due to be published in April 2023.

The internet has helped increase interest in British Sign Language by members of the public, politicians and training companies. Hopefully, BSL’s popularity will translate into equality and improved access for Sign Language users. 

Deaf Culture and History on the BSL Curriculum

Tutors teach students the fundamentals of cultural deafness as part of the BSL curriculum. As students progress and become more fluent in BSL, they learn specific topics that are important in understanding Deaf history. Topics include education, sport and leisure, Deaf clubs and equipment. Learning these topics gives students a better appreciation for culture when they become involved in the Deaf community.

Many students enjoy becoming part of a community that holds strong values of unity.

Deaf History – what it means now

‘Found’ is a short film about Deaf identity. Identifying as a member of a cultural, or linguistic minority is linked to exposure to sign language, clubs and other experiences that occur naturally in the signing community.

History is also important for preserving old signs. BSL is changing. Like many languages, BSL changes over time. The most obvious impact is technology. For example, the sign for phones has changed to reflect the devices in everyday use. The problem with this, it that it has become more noticeable that signs are being lost. The history of BSL is just as important as the culture.

If you want to find out more about deaf history, you can contact the Deaf History Society


Deaf History timeline

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