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History of British Sign Language

Updated: Jan 24

Medieval Fingerspelling

In medieval Europe, monks played a significant role in the development of fingerspelling. During this period, religious institutions were often at the forefront of education, and monks, who were literate and skilled in languages, utilized fingerspelling as a tool for communication. In monastic communities, where silence was often observed, fingerspelling allowed individuals to convey messages discreetly without speaking.

While fingerspelling was not originally developed as a tool for Deaf communication, its adoption by monastic communities contributed to its spread and integration into various sign languages.

Fingerspelling used by the Deaf community.

The first recorded deaf wedding is a historical event that took place in the early 17th century. The wedding involved a Deaf couple, Thomas Wood and Elizabeth Nutt, and it was documented by Samuel Pepys, a prominent English diarist, in his diary entry on May 20, 1667.

Thomas Wood and Elizabeth Nutt were both Deaf, and they were married in St. Bride's Church in Fleet Street, London. Samuel Pepys, who was known for his detailed and comprehensive diary entries, recorded the event. In his diary, he noted that the ceremony was conducted using sign language, with a minister who could communicate in sign language officiating the wedding. Pepys described the unique and symbolic aspects of the ceremony, including the signing of vows and the use of gestures.

This event is historically significant as it provides insight into the Deaf community's resilience and ability to establish meaningful connections and traditions within their own cultural and linguistic context.

Sign Language

In 1570, Geronimo Cardano, an Italian physician, mentioned in his work "De Subtilitate" that deaf people could be educated through the use of signs. However, it wasn't until the 18th century that formalised education for the Deaf gained momentum in Britain.

The first known deaf pupil is Samuel Heinkel, 17

1700s and Thomas Braidwood

The first school for deaf children in the United Kingdom was the Braidwood Academy for the Deaf, which was established by Thomas Braidwood in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1760. Born in 1715 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Braidwood began his career as a teacher. His interest in education, particularly for those with special needs, led him to embark on a journey that would leave a lasting impact on the field of deaf education. Braidwood's methods involved a combination of speech and manual communication, laying the groundwork for the development of sign language. His teaching methods included both oral instruction and the use of signs, reflecting an understanding of the diverse communication needs of his students. The academy aimed to provide a structured and supportive environment where deaf individuals could receive an education tailored to their unique learning requirements. It is essential to note that while Braidwood's contributions were significant, his methods were not without controversy. There were debates within the educational community about the best approach to deaf education, with some advocating for oralism (emphasizing spoken language) and others supporting manualism (emphasizing sign language). These debates foreshadowed the later tensions between oralism and sign language that would shape the direction of deaf education in the years to come.

1800s Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée

The 19th century witnessed a shift in educational approaches for the Deaf, as manual methods gained prominence. The influential work of Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée, a French educator, contributed to the spread of sign language practices in Europe.

Although his work primarily influenced French Sign Language, the principles of manual communication were adopted and adapted by educators in Britain.

Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée (1712–1789) was a French educator and cleric who made significant contributions to the field of deaf education, particularly in the development of sign languages. Born in Versailles, France, l'Épée became known as the "Father of the Deaf" for his pioneering work in creating a systematic method for educating individuals with hearing impairments.

In the 18th century, l'Épée encountered two Deaf sisters, François and Thérèse Clerc, who used a natural sign language to communicate with each other. Recognizing the potential of this visual-gestural language, l'Épée dedicated himself to the education of the Deaf. He established the first public free school for the Deaf in Paris in 1760, where he formalized a method of education that utilized sign language as a primary means of communication.

One of l'Épée's notable contributions was the creation of a manual alphabet that corresponded to French Sign Language. This manual alphabet enabled deaf individuals to represent the sounds of spoken French through handshapes, providing a bridge between sign language and the written word. L'Épée's commitment to linguistic accessibility and inclusivity laid the groundwork for the development of sign languages as legitimate and expressive languages.

L'Épée's work also emphasized the importance of visual-gestural communication as a natural mode of expression for the Deaf. His efforts were distinguished by a belief in the innate capacity of Deaf individuals to learn and communicate through sign language. This perspective stood in contrast to prevailing attitudes of the time, which often viewed deafness as a limitation that could only be overcome through oralism, the exclusive use of spoken language.

After l'Épée's death in 1789, his legacy endured through the institutions he founded. The school he established, known as the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes (Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris), continued to influence deaf education in France. The principles and methods developed by l'Épée laid the foundation for the spread of sign languages and the recognition of their linguistic and cultural significance worldwide.

Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée's contributions to deaf education, particularly his advocacy for sign languages and the establishment of the first public free school for the Deaf, marked a transformative period in the history of deaf education. His commitment to linguistic inclusivity and the recognition of sign languages as legitimate forms of communication left a lasting impact on the development of educational methods for deaf individuals and paved the way for future advancements in the field.

Abbé Sicard and Jean Massieu were influential figures in Deaf education and the evolution of sign language. Abbé Sicard, a French educator in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, succeeded Abbé de l'Épée and emphasized the use of sign language at the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris. He recognized the effectiveness of visual-gestural communication for Deaf students and contributed to the development of a sign system based on French Sign Language.

Jean Massieu, a Deaf student of Abbé Sicard, became an early Deaf teacher at the same institution. Known for his signing prowess, Massieu played a crucial role in developing a systematic teaching method for Deaf students. He collaborated with Abbé Sicard to promote sign language in Deaf education and contributed to the creation of a manual alphabet for French Sign Language. Their collective efforts, alongside other educators in France, laid the groundwork for the recognition of sign language as a legitimate form of communication, shaping the future of Deaf education and sign language research.

Thomas Gallaudet

Thomas Gallaudet (1787–1851) was an American educator and pioneer in the field of Deaf education. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Gallaudet initially studied theology and became interested in the education of Deaf individuals after meeting a Deaf neighbor. He recognized the lack of formal education opportunities for the Deaf in the United States and sought to address this gap.

In 1815, Thomas Gallaudet traveled to Europe to learn about methods for educating the Deaf. During his visit to the Parisian school run by Abbé Sicard, he met Laurent Clerc, a Deaf teacher, and together they returned to the United States with the goal of establishing a school for the Deaf.

In 1817, Gallaudet co-founded the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Hartford, Connecticut. This marked the first permanent school for Deaf students in the United States. Laurent Clerc played a crucial role as the first Deaf teacher at the school, contributing to the development of American Sign Language (ASL), which blended elements of French Sign Language with local sign languages.

Gallaudet's efforts and collaboration with Clerc laid the foundation for Deaf education in the United States. He continued to advocate for the rights and education of Deaf individuals throughout his life. Gallaudet University, established in Washington, D.C. in 1864, was named in his honor and remains a prominent institution for the Deaf and hard of hearing, offering higher education programs and fostering Deaf culture.

The Royal School for Deaf Children

In 1792, England's first public institution for deaf children, named the 'London Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor,' was established in London. Rev John Townsend, a Bermondsey priest, campaigned for its creation, aiming to provide education for deaf children beyond the wealthy class. The school relocated to purpose-built premises on Kent Road in 1809 due to its growing popularity, with 73 applicants vying for only 15 available spots by 1815. In 1876, a branch of the school was opened in Margate, and eventually, the entire operation shifted from London to this seaside town to offer residents the benefits of fresh air. In December 2015, after more than 220 years, The Royal School for Deaf Children closed its doors, marking the end of a significant chapter in deaf education history.

BSL Development in the UK and the rise and conglomeration of regional sign language

During the 1800s, the Deaf community in the UK began to form its own unique sign language, distinct from the systems used in continental Europe. Regional variations of sign language emerged, reflecting the diverse linguistic landscape of the British Isles. However, these regional dialects faced challenges in achieving widespread recognition and standardization.

In the mid-19th century, the advent of the railway system and the increased movement of people led to the amalgamation of various regional sign languages. This blending of linguistic influences contributed to the formation of a more unified and standardized British Sign Language. Despite these positive developments, the Deaf community continued to face discrimination and marginalization.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries marked a crucial period for the recognition of BSL. The British Deaf Association (BDA), established in 1890, played a key role in advocating for the rights of the Deaf community and the recognition of BSL as a legitimate language. The BDA's efforts helped raise awareness about the linguistic and cultural aspects of BSL, fostering a sense of identity and community among Deaf individuals.

One of the notable advocates for BSL during this era was Alexander Graham Bell, a renowned inventor of the telephone. Bell, however, held controversial views on deafness and communication, promoting oralism over sign language. His influence led to the dominance of oralism in Deaf education for several decades, marginalizing the use of sign language in educational settings.

The Milan Conference

The Milan Conference of 1880 was a historic gathering that significantly influenced the direction of deaf education and the use of sign languages. Held in Milan, Italy, from September 6 to 11, 1880, the conference brought together educators of the deaf from around the world. The primary aim of the conference was to address the ongoing debate between oralism (promoting spoken language) and manualism (emphasizing sign language) as the preferred method of instruction for deaf individuals.

The conference is best known for its controversial resolution, Resolution VII, which declared that oral education should be the exclusive method used in schools for the deaf. This decision was a significant setback for advocates of sign languages, as it marginalized the use of manual communication in educational settings. The resolution was passed by a majority of delegates, many of whom were influenced by Alexander Graham Bell's strong advocacy for oralism.

The Milan Conference had profound and lasting effects on deaf education globally. It led to the widespread adoption of oralism as the dominant educational approach, limiting the use of sign languages in classrooms. The consequences of this decision were felt for decades, with sign languages facing suppression and marginalization in deaf education.

The conference highlighted the ideological divide between those who believed in the potential of sign languages as legitimate modes of communication and those who advocated for exclusive reliance on spoken language. The impact of the Milan Conference resonated well into the 20th century, shaping the trajectory of deaf education and influencing the perception of sign languages as essential tools for communication and cultural expression within the Deaf community. The 1900s

The 20th century was a period of significant developments for British Sign Language (BSL), marked by both challenges and milestones that shaped its recognition and use within the Deaf community.

New schools emerged: Birmingham institute for the Deaf 1814, The Manchester School of the Deaf and Liverpool school of deaf both in 1825.

1. Early 20th Century:Oralism Dominance The aftermath of the Milan Conference in 1880, which favored oralism, had a lasting impact on Deaf education in the UK. Oralism, emphasizing spoken language, became the dominant approach, and sign languages, including BSL, were often suppressed in educational settings.

2. Mid-20th Century: Deaf Community Activism  In the mid-20th century, the Deaf community began to assert itself more actively. Deaf clubs and organizations, such as the British Deaf Association (BDA), played crucial roles in advocating for Deaf rights, including the right to use sign language. The establishment of the British Deaf and Dumb Association (now known as the British Deaf Association) in 1890 paved the way for increased activism and advocacy. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Deaf community in the UK became more vocal in demanding recognition and equal rights.

1971 March of the 30,000

In 1971, the BDA organized a historic march in London, known as the "March of the 30,000," to protest against discrimination and to advocate for the right to use BSL in education. This event marked a turning point in the recognition of BSL as a valid means of communication for the Deaf community. Thousands protested for Deaf rights, including the right to use BSL. The march took place on May 6, 1971, in London and marked a significant moment of collective action and visibility for the Deaf community.

The march began at Trafalgar Square and proceeded to Hyde Park. Participants carried banners, signs, and placards, conveying messages related to Deaf identity, language rights, and equality. The march symbolized the collective determination of the Deaf community to be seen and heard.

The March of the 30,000 had a profound impact on public awareness and government perceptions regarding Deaf issues. It brought attention to the linguistic and cultural rights of Deaf individuals, challenging prevailing attitudes that favored oralism over sign language in education. The event played a crucial role in pushing for policy changes and increased recognition of BSL. The event remains a symbol of collective strength and resilience within the Deaf community, emphasizing the importance of linguistic and cultural rights.

1975- BSL name is coined

Dr. Mary Brennan, an internationally renowned sign linguist, was a pioneer in advancing the understanding of British Sign Language (BSL) and challenging assumptions in deaf education. Trained in English, philosophy, and linguistics, she established the 'Edinburgh BSL Project' at Moray House College of Education, focusing on researching the grammar of BSL. In a seminal 1975 paper, "Can Deaf Children Acquire Language," she questioned the exclusive use of spoken languages in deaf education and proposed the terms 'British Sign Language' and 'BSL.' At Durham University, she co-directed the Deaf Studies Research Unit, introducing the first MA courses in Teaching of Sign Languages and Sign Linguistics. She returned to Edinburgh in 1998, directing the postgraduate program for teachers of deaf children. Her work consistently emphasized access for deaf individuals, and she received the British Deaf Association's Medal of Honour in 2004. Dr. Mary Brennan passed away on June 23, 2005, leaving a lasting legacy in the fields of Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies.

1978 The Warnock Report

The Warnock Report, officially titled "Special Educational Needs: Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People," was a pivotal document published in 1978 in the United Kingdom. Chaired by Mary Warnock, the committee was tasked with examining the educational needs of children with special needs, including those with hearing impairments.

The Warnock Report marked a significant shift in educational policy, emphasizing the principles of inclusion and integration. It advocated for a departure from the prevailing practice of segregating children with special needs into separate schools and classrooms. Instead, the report recommended integrating these children into mainstream educational settings whenever possible, allowing them to learn alongside their non-disabled peers.

For the Deaf community, the Warnock Report had both positive and challenging implications. While the emphasis on inclusion represented a step toward a more inclusive educational environment, concerns arose regarding the potential loss of specialized support and resources for Deaf students. The report's recommendations prompted discussions within the Deaf community about the need for a balance between inclusion and the preservation of sign language and culturally sensitive educational approaches.

Ultimately, the Warnock Report significantly influenced the education landscape for Deaf individuals by shaping policies that aimed to provide more inclusive educational opportunities. It sparked ongoing conversations about the best ways to support the diverse needs of Deaf students within mainstream educational settings, contributing to the evolution of educational practices and the broader discourse on inclusive education in the UK.

Late 20th Century: BSL Recognition 

In 1987, a pivotal moment occurred when the UK government officially recognized BSL as a language in its own right. This recognition marked a crucial step towards acknowledging the linguistic and cultural significance of BSL. The government's recognition was not only symbolic but had practical implications for various sectors, including education, where BSL could now be acknowledged as a legitimate language of instruction.

It would take until 2023 for the language to be officially recognised by law as an official language of the UK and users to have to the same rights as users of other national languages.

The BDA March of 1999

The BDA March of 1999, held in London on May 6, was a pivotal event spotlighting the rights and challenges of the UK Deaf community. Organized by the British Deaf Association, it aimed to advocate for increased recognition, accessibility, and equality. The diverse crowd, of over 10,000 comprising Deaf individuals, their families, and allies, passionately addressed systemic issues like barriers to education, employment, healthcare, and public services. Advocates called for the official recognition of British Sign Language (BSL) and equal opportunities for Deaf people.

Emphasizing unity and empowerment, the march challenged misconceptions about Deaf culture and promoted understanding. Participants displayed visually powerful advocacy through signs, banners, and spirited chants. Notably, an attempt was made to involve Prime Minister Tony Blair in the dialogue, seeking awareness at the governmental level and discussions on Deaf-specific issues. The march had a lasting impact, fostering a broader dialogue on inclusivity and equal rights for the Deaf community. Subsequent advocacy initiatives influenced policy changes in areas such as accessibility, education, and language rights for Deaf individuals in the UK.

21st Century: Legislation and Accessibility

In 2003, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act was enacted, making BSL an official language in Scotland. In 2011, the UK government officially acknowledged BSL as a recognized language, emphasizing its cultural and linguistic importance. These legal recognitions have contributed to increased accessibility and inclusivity in various sectors.

Technological Advances

The 21st century has seen technological advancements that benefit the Deaf community. Video relay services and online platforms have facilitated communication in BSL, breaking down barriers and providing new opportunities for interaction and expression. Video relay services, email, and instant messaging provided new avenues for communication in BSL. Social media platforms and online communities further facilitated connections among Deaf individuals, fostering a sense of community and shared identity.

The 2000s

Legal Recognition in Scotland (2000s): In 2003, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act was enacted, making BSL an official language in Scotland. The legislation aimed to promote the use and understanding of BSL, ensuring that Deaf individuals in Scotland had equal access to services and information.

BSL (Scotland) Bill (2015): Building on the 2003 Act, the BSL (Scotland) Bill was introduced in 2015, further reinforcing the legal status of BSL and outlining specific measures to promote its use and accessibility. The bill recognized BSL as a language of Scotland's Deaf community, emphasizing its importance in education, public services, and the broader societal context.

The 2000s

Legal Recognition in Scotland (2000s): In 2003, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act was enacted, making BSL an official language in Scotland. The legislation aimed to promote the use and understanding of BSL, ensuring that Deaf individuals in Scotland had equal access to services and information.

BSL (Scotland) Bill (2015): Building on the 2003 Act, the BSL (Scotland) Bill was introduced in 2015, further reinforcing the legal status of BSL and outlining specific measures to promote its use and accessibility. The bill recognized BSL as a language of Scotland's Deaf community, emphasizing its importance in education, public services, and the broader societal context.

2010: The Milan Conference of 1880 is revoked and an apology issued

In 2010, the Organizing Committee of the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) in Vancouver, Canada, took a momentous step by renouncing the 1880 Milan ICED resolutions. These resolutions, which prohibited the use of sign language in educational programs for deaf children, had led to a global deprivation of quality education and limited equality for Deaf citizens. The joint effort of the Vancouver ICED 2010 Organizing Committee and the British Columbia Deaf Community (BCDC) resulted in the creation of the statement "A New Era: Deaf Participation and Collaboration." This statement not only rejected the Milan resolutions but also expressed deep regret for their adverse effects and advocated for the acceptance and respect of all languages and forms of communication in educational settings.

The New Era Accord outlined a commitment to working with national governments in adherence to the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). It emphasized sign language as a human right and recognized education as encompassing full language acquisition, along with academic, practical, and social knowledge. The Accord also endorsed resolutions from the World Federation of the Deaf's 15th Congress in 2007, promoting equal and appropriate access to a multi-lingual, multi-cultural education, recognizing Sign Languages as legitimate languages, advocating for the inclusion of Deaf individuals in all aspects of education, and championing human rights for all. Joe McLaughlin, a member of the Organizing Committee, presented the Statement of Principle and Accord for the Future to a plenary audience of approximately 750 participants. Participants at the ICED Congress and the BCDC were invited to sign the document.

Sign Language Act (2016): In 2016, the British government introduced the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act, extending legal recognition to BSL across the UK. The Act aimed to promote the use and understanding of BSL, emphasizing the importance of access to information, services, and opportunities for Deaf individuals.


The British Sign Language Act 2022 recognises BSL as an official language of England, Scotland and Wales - the same status afforded to Welsh and Scots Gaelic. Under the new law, the government must promote BSL and make it easier for people to use it in their dealings with government agencies. Figures from the British Deaf Association suggest 151,000 people use BSL in the UK, 87,000 of whom are deaf.

Like any other language, BSL has its own grammar structures and regional dialects.

The BSL Act is the result of 19 years of campaigning, and was introduced as a private member's bill in 2021 by the MP Rosie Cooper, whose parents were deaf and made official as the BSL Act in 2023.

Key Names and Dates in this article.

  • 1570 Geronimo Cardano

  • 1667 Deaf Wedding: Thomas Wood and Elizabeth Nutt

  • 1760 Braidwood Academy for the Deaf

  • 1787-1851 Thomas Gallaudet

  • 1792 Royal School for Deaf Children

  • 1792 London Asylum

  • 1800s Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée

  • 1809 London Asylum Move

  • 1815 Braidwood Academy Oversubscribed

  • 1817 American School for the Deaf

  • 1876 Royal School in Margate

  • 1880 Milan Conference

  • 1890 British Deaf Association (BDA)

  • 1971 March of the 30,000

  • 1975 Dr. Mary Brennan

  • 1978 Warnock Report

  • 1987 BSL Recognition

  • 1999 BDA March

  • 2003 BSL Scotland Act

  • 2010 Milan Conference Revocation

  • 2015 BSL (Scotland) Bill

  • 2016 Sign Language Act

  • 2023 BSL Act

  • Alexander Graham Bell

  • Braidwood Academy

  • British Deaf Association (BDA)

  • British Sign Language Act 2022

  • Charles-Michel de l'Épée

  • Jean Massieu

  • John Townsend

  • Laurent Clerc

  • Medieval Monks and Fingerspelling

  • Samuel Pepys

  • Thomas Braidwood

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