Celebrating the International Day of Sign Languages

In 2017, following a proposal from the World Federation of the Deaf, the United Nations declared the 23rd of September International Day of Sign Languages.

Maleni Chaitoo, representative of the International Disability Alliance, addressing the audience using sign language.

Maleni Chaitoo, representative of the International Disability Alliance, addressing the audience using sign language. Photo credit: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard.

This date was chosen because it is the same date on which the WFD was established in 1951. The WFD is the peak international non-government organisation for national associations of signing deaf people all over the world.

The UN wished to use the day to highlight the objectives set out in article 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which states that all signatories should take all appropriate measures to recognise and promote the use of sign languages.

As a hearing Linguist who works with deaf individuals and communities to document and describe sign languages, I think the fact that WFD and UN use the plural ‘sign languages’ in the naming of the day is particularly important. The latest edition of the online language catalogue Glottolog lists 219 sign languages used in deaf communities across the globe. However, the diversity of sign languages is not as widely appreciated as it should be (i.e., sign language is not universal as sometimes mistakenly believed).

Professor Adam Schembri - Professor in Linguistics.

Many hearing people also do not know that sign languages have their own vocabulary and grammar that differ from the surrounding spoken languages. They are distinct languages, not signed forms of spoken languages. Neither of these facts are surprising if one understands that, just like spoken languages, sign languages develop spontaneously wherever deaf people come together to form a community; sign languages are natural languages, not artificial sign systems or conlangs.

This year’s theme for the International Day of Sign Languages is ‘A world where deaf people can sign anywhere’. This reflects the vision of WFD of a more inclusive world in which deaf people and their sign languages are celebrated and used by everyone everywhere. The WFD has called on governments to hold to their commitment to promoting sign languages as signatories to the UNCRPD, by ensuring that at least 50% of all children and young people have opportunities to learn their national sign languages. Here at the University of Birmingham, we have the university Sign Language Society which organises British Sign Language classes for students.

The WFD has identified that deaf communities in around 60% of the nation states who signed the UNCRPD have not yet achieved any legal recognition of their national sign languages. Perhaps the single most important language right for deaf people is to have access to their community sign language from birth. Unfortunately, many people are denied access to sign languages because awareness of basic facts about sign languages is relatively low, and due to mistaken beliefs amongst health professionals and educators that using a sign language might hinder spoken language development in deaf children. This too often results in language deprivation, in which children do not gain access to language in the critical early years of life, leading to lifelong language difficulties and educational disadvantage.

At the 21st General Assembly of the WFD in South Korea this year, deaf representatives from the world’s national associations for deaf people approved the Declaration on the Rights of Deaf Children. This includes 10 points relating to the language rights of deaf children, including Article 7 on the rights of deaf children to be protected from language deprivation. Schembri encourages everyone to read and share this declaration, and show your support for it by adding your signature here.

As a member of the Global Coalition for Language Rights (GCLR), Professor Adam Schembri has worked with two deaf translators to create a British Sign Language and International Sign version of the GCLR Statement on Understanding and Defending Language Rights. In the future, the GCLR hope to expand its work in this area, and collaborate more closely with the WFD and national associations of deaf people to advocate for the language rights of deaf communities everywhere.

Happy International Day of Sign Languages!