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Full Equality Demands Language Rights

Full Equality Demands Language Rights
September 21, 2015 Ryan Hutchison
3 young boys sign to each other on the street

Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs.

– Nelson Mandela


A champion of human dignity, Nelson Mandela was a once-in-a-generation world leader who peacefully obliterated an institutional system of class and racial segregation in South Africa. Mandela also promoted a radical change in government policy on deafness and education by recognizing sign language as an official South African language and promoting sign language over oralism in the education of deaf learners. Unfortunately, such compassionate leadership and broad recognition of the human rights needs of deaf people worldwide simply does not exist today.

There are over 278 million deaf people across the globe. Eighty percent of this population—over 200 million—live in low and middle-income countries. According to the World Federation of the Deaf, a staggering 90 percent of deaf people in these developing countries receive NO formal education. Of the select few with access to formal education, only 1–2 percent receive it in sign language. Ninety percent of deaf children are born to non-signing, hearing parents and struggle to acquire ANY language at all. Lacking education and access to language, hundreds of millions of deaf adults struggle throughout their lifetime to find hope, employment and social fulfillment.

Deaf children are born with an equal capacity to be successful in education, employment and society alongside their hearing peers. Sign language is the single most important factor deaf children need to fulfill their innate capacity for achievement.

Through CSD’s Deaf Adult Basic Education (ABE) program in Minnesota, we have gained an invaluable perspective on the global struggle for language acquisition experienced by many deaf people. Seventy percent of our ABE students are deaf immigrants from developing countries, and most come to us without ANY language. Our program supports adult students like Ahmed, who came recently to America from war-torn Somalia. Before joining our program, Ahmed had never been to school and struggled at home to communicate with his family through gestures and “home signs.” Through our program, he finally has language (American Sign Language), a vocabulary and the joy of inclusion. LANGUAGE has given Ahmed access to the world and will provide him the empowering ability to make choices for himself and become self-sufficient.

CSD’s Minnesota ABE program will continue making a difference in the lives of adult students like Ahmed, but more must be done on a global scale to afford children LANGUAGE to learn, participate and thrive. That’s why I’m incredibly proud of our support of the World Federation of the Deaf, which is positively impacting change for deaf people worldwide and focusing international attention on what matters most in developing the innate capacities of our community through awareness campaigns like the 2015 International Week of the Deaf theme: “With Sign Language Rights, Our Children Can!”

The “With Sign Language Rights, Our Children Can” campaign will draw international focus on the basic human right afforded to children through language, while raising needed funds for WFD to sustain it’s efforts. WFD played a key role in ensuring that the human rights needs of the global deaf community were recognized in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD)— including Article 2, which recognizes sign language as a valid linguistic means of conveying thoughts, ideas and emotions. Funds raised through this campaign will help support WFD’s advocacy and coordinating role between the over one hundred UNCRPD signatory countries and their national deaf associations to guide the implementation of language rights laws that reflect their country’s UNCRPD commitment, including Article 24, Section 3B, which obligates governments to facilitate the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

– Nelson Mandela

Like Mandela, we should strive to ensure true and full equality of ALL people. Without access to language and education, deaf people cannot communicate, learn or achieve on equal footing with the rest of society. We must recognize this as a form of apartheid and strive to support organizations working to erase it on a global scale. Please join me in supporting the WFD and it’s 2015 International Week of the Deaf theme by donating today!

— Ryan Hutchison
Vice President, CSD National Programs