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The right to grow bilingual

The disability movement worldwide stands behind this motto: "Nothing about us without us." However, when it comes to deaf children, everything is decided without us!
Dickson Mveyange
10.2.2014

Parents decide on the future of their deaf child after consultation with professionals, such as doctors, psychologists, and teachers. However, the only true experts with regard to deafness are completely left out of the picture. Namely the deaf people themselves.

In my view there is no equality for deaf people as long as the "professionals" working with deaf children and people do not see us as partners. Worse still, deafness is seen as something that has to be cured. And as long as deaf people are kept out of deaf education, deaf children will continue to grow up to be second class citizens.

I believe that being educated bilingually, this means in a sign language and in a spoken or written language, can be a great benefit to a deaf child. Just like it’s for a hearing child. Linguistic diversity is applauded and promoted by governments all over the world. In Europe hearing people are encouraged to learn as much languages as they can. Europe is a linguistic mosaic and they are very proud of it.

It is not important that deaf people can speak perfectly. To me it is more important that a deaf person can develop knowledge, can think, can participate fully in our society, can grasp the complexities of the world we are living in, and has something to tell the world.

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Sign languages and technical devices can be helpful but are only devices or aids, not the solution to the real problem of deaf people: full access to communication and information.

Communication is more complex than being able to hear sounds. It is about understanding, dialogue, and empathy. Why do you think computer translations of languages are so difficult? Because computers cannot grasp the meaning behind words like humans can.

It has been shown that hearing children, who first learn some basic sign language, develop faster than other children of the same age who did not have access to a sign language.

So if this is scientifically proved, then why is this withheld from deaf children?

It comes as no surprise for you that deaf people cannot master spoken languages as easily and comprehensively as sign languages. A sign language is completely accessible to a deaf person, a spoken language is not. A sign language is the only language which a deaf child can learn in a natural, easy way. It therefore needs to be considered as the native or indigenous language of the deaf child.

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For many deaf persons, the spoken language of their country or region will always remain a foreign or second language. Sign languages are a tool by which deaf children and adults communicate and express their needs and desires. The use of (sign) language separate us from animals: it makes us human beings. 

Thus, the legal recognition of sign languages would pay due respect to languages which for a long time have been looked down upon and which are still struggling for recognition.

In this respect, sign languages share the situation with a number of other minority languages, the only difference being that sign languages are minority languages which their speakers depend on for communication as they have no other equally efficient means of communication.

It is important to note that due to the lack of a comprehensive official recognition of sign language/s in many countries, deaf people and children continue to encounter barriers in communication and information.

There is a great divergence from one country to another when it comes to the legal or official recognition of sign languages in Europe. Some countries have included their national sign language in the state's constitution, whereas others have chosen to recognise it by including it in laws of a lower hierarchical rank such as educational laws, whereas a third group of countries have not yet legally recognised their national sign languages at all.

Often, the government’s policy regarding deaf people and the legislative framework in a given country correlate highly with the degree of acceptance of multicultural and multi-ethnic values.

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It has been shown that deaf children benefit from the use of a sign language at an early age and that it helps them in forming their linguistic, perceptive, educational and social skills.

Despite of all above said, there are very few bilingual schools for deaf children. Financial resources are inadequate to develop materials in sign language, train sign language teachers and sign language interpreters.

There are problems with the provision of adequate interpretation for deaf sign language users in environments such as education, work and other settings. The consequence is that many deaf people continue to be excluded in one way or another because they cannot use their preferred language.

As the number of deaf children attending Deaf schools continues to decline, it is no longer evident that these kids will find their way to the local deaf community and learn a sign language. But we will fight for them to be part of our community.

The access to communication and education are acknowledged internationally as rights of deaf people. The UNESCO Salamanca statement stresses clearly the importance of sign languages. Furthermore, Rule 5 of the UN Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities makes a clear statement about access to information and communication and the place of sign languages in education.

The Deaf community at large and in particular the local, regional and national deaf organisations will have a great responsibility in reaching out to mainstreamed deaf children and Deaf children with cochlear implants. As long as hearing people force us to conform to the hearing norm, we will resist.

Writer works as Executive Director in Tanzania Association of the the Deaf (CHAVITA).