Sign language


Information on how both the British Sign Language (BSL) and the Irish Sign Language (ISL) were embraced and their history.

Embracing sign language

Northern Ireland has two signed languages - British Sign Language (BSL) and Irish Sign Language (ISL). Both BSL and ISL were embraced within the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and in March 2004 the Secretary of State announced the formal recognition of BSL and ISL as languages in their own right following similar recognition of BSL in Great Britain.

The languages have their own grammar and syntax systems rather than being visual reflections of other languages. BSL is the first or preferred language of communication of approximately 3,500 members of the deaf population of Northern Ireland while approximately 1,500 use ISL.

Deaf culture and identity

Deaf people who use sign language as their first or preferred language identify themselves as part of a cultural and linguistic minority and view their signed language as a ‘language of need’ which, along with deaf culture, should be respected and celebrated.

New Decade New Approach / Legislation

In March 2016, the Department for Communities consulted on a Sign Language Framework, which contained policy proposals for legislation. This consultation was referenced in the New Decade New Approach agreement in January 2020 with a commitment to introduce a Sign Language Bill. The Department is currently working towards this commitment.

Sign language partnership group

The Sign Language Partnership Group (SLPG), led by the Department for Communities, was established as a forum to bring together representatives of Northern Ireland government departments and the deaf community to improve access to public services for BSL and ISL users by supporting and developing BSL and ISL communities in a linguistic context to promote respect and understanding of BSL/ISL.

The SLPG has been funding initiatives to support the issue of access to public services by BSL and ISL users and to promote sign language to families with deaf children guided by its agreed priorities of:

  • providing personal and social development programmes to redress the educational academic under achievement for deaf people in order to reach their full potential and gain better employment prospects
  • building capacity to enable all services to become accessible to allow the sign language user to be fully included
  • building capacity to have sign language recognised officially as a “linguistic and cultural minority “ language in order to develop policy to ensure continued provision of funding and services
  • building capacity to raise the profile of sign language as a “linguistic and cultural minority” language and a language of “need” for deaf people in order to raise awareness and understanding within the NI community.


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