On 3rd July 2018, history was made. Thankfully not the usual kind of what-on-earth-is-going-on history.
Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary of State for International Development and Minister for Women and Equalities, was the first ever Government Minister to use British Sign Language, better known as BSL, on the front benches.
She wasn’t, however, the first MP to use it in Parliament. That title goes to Dawn Butler, the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities. But what is BSL, and what makes this new move so significant?
BSL has been recognised as an official minority language in the U.K. since 2003. Estimates vary, but it is believed that approximately 50,000 people use BSL as their first or preferred language.
The deaf community are the main users of sign language, although it is also widely used for children with disabilities that affects speech development.
BSL is the British form of sign language, although it is completely separate from the English language. It is also very different from sign language in other countries, just as spoken English is.
Communications are through hand movements, body language, gestures, and facial expressions; and like any other languages there are regional dialects and variations that can be compared to accents.
Sign language has a rich history and culture dating back centuries, including a wide range of poetry and performances. It’s great to finally see it appear at the dispatch box!
Above all, seeing BSL in the Commons raises awareness of just how important it is. Many people’s lives have been completely transformed by the ability to communicate effectively despite being deaf.
It’s hugely important to our economy. If disabled people are held back in the workplace, they can’t reach their full potential.
Mordaunt’s speech in the Commons was promoting the British Government’s first ever Global Disability Summit – co-hosted with the International Disability Alliance, and the Kenyan Government.
The conference, due to be held on 24th July, will focus on promoting innovative ways that technology could be used to further equality for disabled people and how unlocking the potential of these people can boost the world economy.
For Penny Mordaunt, this conference is a real chance for her to work on both of the roles. Primarily as Secretary of State for International Development, but also in her role as Minister for Women and Equalities.
Throughout her Parliamentary career, Mordaunt has often been the ‘first’ or ‘only’. She is the Only female MP that is a Royal Naval Reservist, and in 2015, five years after being first elected as MP for Portsmouth North, she served under David Cameron as Minister of State for the Armed Forces, once again being the first woman to hold that position.
It was also the first time in a while that an almost full house of MPs clapped happily at something the Government had said. Politics is a messy business, but it’s often these moments of unity and support that make it magic.
Even the speaker, John Bercow, tried his own hand at BSL. It might not have been as smooth or well thought out as Mordaunt’s, but nonetheless, he just about managed to sign “good news”. It’s the thought that counts.