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Who uses British Sign Language (BSL)?

Sign Language in the UK

Most Deaf people who use sign language in the UK use British Sign Language (BSL). It is a rich combination of hand gestures, facial expressions and body language and, like English, has its own grammar, syntax and lexicons.

BSL was recognised by the UK government as a language in its own right in March 2003, but there are no accurate figures for the number of sign language users in the country.

The 2011 census asked a question about sign language use for the first time, but it was badly worded and misunderstood, and as a result it vastly under-reported the number of users.

A good estimate is that there are around 70,000 people who use BSL as their preferred language.

Understanding English

For many Deaf people, to learn English is to learn a second language.

In BSL, one sign can often represent what would be an entire sentence in English. On the other hand, some English words do not have a sign equivalent.

For a Deaf patient that uses BSL, going to see a doctor used to mean relying on lipreading and passing pieces of paper back and forth, which is very difficult and is not an accessible form of communication. How could you explain your symptoms accurately and understand the specifics of the treatment the GP is suggesting if you aren’t using the same language?

Thanks to the Accessible Information Standard, NHS services are now required to book an interpreter during appointments to translate for Deaf patients who use BSL.

British Sign Language Resources

Finger spelling is used when there is no particular sign for a word, good examples would be spelling out someone’s name or an address. It can also be used to spell words if the signer does not know a sign or to clarify a sign that is not known by the person reading the signer.

You can also download our guides for some basic signs. These resources have been kindly shared with us by Early Learning HQ.

Support in the midst of the crisis

SignHealth has taken on new activities and services to ensure we can support the health and wellbeing of Deaf people under the shadow of a global pandemic.

Our Coronavirus Response

Why SignHealth?

We deliver specialist services to reach Deaf people in their own language in their moment of need, through therapy, domestic abuse support, crisis textlines, advocacy and residential services.   

We partner with the NHS and other services to improve access, as well as take on projects, carry out research and raise awareness.