GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Comhairle Choitcheann Teagaisg na h-Alba

Signs of equality

Why communication through a visual language should be available to all those with hearing difficulties

Ask Janis McDonald for her Martin Luther King “I have a dream” moment, and she doesn’t hesitate: “I would like to see every practitioner in our schools trained to a good level of British sign language as a standard part of the curriculum,” she says. “Whatever your situation, communication is a significant skill for life and I believe that a lot of people could benefit from learning sign language.”

Janis is Chief Officer of the Scottish Council on Deafness (SCoD), the lead organisation for deaf issues in Scotland. It aims to ensure that deaf, deafened, deafblind and hard of hearing people in Scotland can have equality, access services and information across all sectors of society, including education, and be active citizens.

We want to make sure that all the teachers in any mainstream school are deaf aware, and have a level of sign that is helpful for general communication

As Janis explains, attainment figures indicate that there are different issues to tackle, depending on the barriers to learning. “If people are born profoundly deaf, they have major issues acquiring any spoken language, so for many deaf children sign would be their first language,” she says. “Depending on what age you become deafened, you will still be profoundly deaf, but you may or may not have a level of English that is commensurate with your development.

“There are similar barriers to deafblind and hard of hearing children, and attainment figures indicate that none of the deaf children does as well as their hearing peers – but the hard of hearing children don’t do as well as the deaf and deafened, probably because they don’t receive the additional support and need more investigation.”

Around 80 per cent of school-aged deaf children attend mainstream schools, where there is no specialist provision, according to the 2015 survey by the Consortium for Research into Deaf Education (CRIDE). But with only 15 specialist units across the country, Janis sees even more need for practitioners to have access to recognised qualifications in sign language. We want to make sure that all the teachers in any mainstream school are deaf aware, and have a level of sign that is helpful for general communication,” she says. “We would also like to see increased links with the Scottish Sensory Centre, which sits within the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh, as well as the University’s Bilingualism Matters centre, which has also been working to promote British Sign Language (BSL) in schools.”

The introduction of the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 in September last year recognised BSL as a language of Scotland, which Janis sees as a critical development in raising awareness of BSL and promoting the use of the language.

“With the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015, we are clearly now taking forward BSL as a language option in schools,” she says. “That is going to have an impact so we are keen to develop our relationship with GTC Scotland, to look at what that means for schools, what it means for learners and what it means in terms of opportunities for deaf people.

“We like the idea of bilingualism, where people will be taught English and BSL as a visual language. We’d like to see a deaf child starting school, and their hearing peers being taught a level of sign. As they develop and go through their various years at school, they would be given top-ups so that people are much more included in their peer groups.”

Janis cites the example of an innovative project at Dingwall Academy, which has seen the introduction of BSL as a language option sitting alongside the traditional languages of French, German and Gaelic. Priority was given to deaf pupils and to pupils who had a deaf or hearing-impaired relative, and some 87 pupils out of 240 applied for the 20 available places during the first year the course was offered.

“The Curriculum for Excellence strives to enable young people to become successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens,” writes Margaret Kinsman from the Highland Deaf Education Service at Dingwall Academy in her report on Introducing British Sign Language in a Scottish Secondary School for Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (SCILT).

“The original group of BSL learners has been on an incredible journey, challenging the national decline in language learning. This pilot carried out in Dingwall Academy shows that there is potential to achieve a fairer and more equitable society through the learning of BSL.”

Two of the hearing children from Dingwall Academy have subsequently been accepted on the course at Heriot- Watt University that trains people to work as BSL/English interpreters and translators and to use BSL proficiently in related professional areas.

For Janis, that progress shows the all-round benefits of an increased focus on BSL and on provision for education for deaf learners.

“The more support we can make available, the more likely that deaf learners will have more mainstream opportunities,” she says. “Without support, their confidence and competence can be affected. The key is to make sure that to reach our goals, we get there safely and the people who are doing the teaching are properly qualified and well supported.”

For more information about the Scottish Council on Deafness, visit: