The Legal Recognition of National Sign Languages

Deaf people worldwide have historically faced, and continue to face, discrimination with regard to the use of their national sign languages.  This includes barriers to natural language access as well as frequently confronting situations of not having equal and real-time access to information and communication in their daily lives.  This is particularly acute in educational settings, and the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the critical need to continue working to secure this right in emergency situations and during humanitarian disasters.

The World Federation of the Deaf considers the lack of meaningful sign language legislation on the national level a grave violation of deaf peoples’ fundamental rights.

The WFD’s 2020-2030 Strategic Direction calls for further promotion of the legal recognition of national sign languages.  We are committed to supporting our Ordinary Members (national associations of deaf people) in their work to achieve meaningful legal recognition of their national sign languages. All countries have an obligation under the CRPD to promote legal recognition of their national sign languages.

The World Federation of the Deaf is pleased to present this infographic with information on United Nations Member States that have achieved national-level legal recognition of their national sign languages. This compilation comprises legislation from the countries listed that recognise deaf people’s right to use their national sign languages in different areas of life.

This infographic illustrates the various legal frameworks that countries have adopted to recognise deaf people’s linguistic and cultural rights. The legal framework adopted by countries in their recognition promotes understanding of national sign languages as part of the linguistic ecology of that country (Murray, 2020) and that deaf people can enjoy their human rights in all areas of life.

Meaningful legal recognition of national sign languages leads to better enjoyment of human rights.

The aim of this infographic is to share and monitor the advances in the world regarding this objective. This  descriptive illustration should motivate countries that continue to advocate for legal recognition of their sign languages, as well as inspire the strengthening of existing policies related to sign languages. 

The WFD´s efforts on sign language rights are supported by The Nippon Foundation (TNF) through the project “Securing Access to Sign Language Rights” and are currently being put toward designing a toolkit to support Ordinary Members (OMs). These toolkits will increase the understanding of the steps necessary to begin the process of seeking legal recognition of one’s national sign language and how to develop new strategies to strengthen policies that are being implemented post-recognition. This toolkit will allow OMs to access information on current trends and knowledge gained through best practices and case studies. The WFD and TNF hope that this effort will enable national associations to identify challenges and develop strategies for sign language recognition work using the information and resources that have been compiled.

The infographic shows a world map with a light grey background where countries are depicted in two colours: blue for countries that have achieved sign language recognition and grey for those who have not attained it.  On the map, the following countries have been spotlighted: Canada, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Ireland, Luxembourg, Chile, The Netherlands, Philippines, Bulgaria, and Greece are listed with a brief description and date of their sign language recognition.

Underneath the map, on the left south side, there is a circle graphic chart with different colours, with an explanatory text of the colours used. Next to it on the right, there is a list of the blue countries, with the year they achieved legal recognition and one or two little squares with a colour that represents the type of legislation that recognises their sign language in their country.

Description of legal framework categories:

This infographic lists national-level legislation by United Nations Member States. This does not include sub-national recognition legislation. For more information on specific countries, please contact their national deaf association. Kosovo and the Palestian Territories, per the vote of the XX General Assembly of the WFD, are WFD Ordinary Members and also noted on this map. 

Legal systems around the world present differences and similarities.  In this infographic, we have the following categories in which we have fit the distinct legal frameworks from the countries that are shown in the list. Laws worldwide are very diverse in nature and scope, the order and types of law categories presented here, as De Meulder (2015) has previously stated, do not constitute a hierarchy or ranking in itself, but rather a simple description of distinct legal structures.

ColorTitleDescription
BlueCountries with Sign Language RecognitionThis is the color used in the map that shows all the countries that have any kind of sign language recognition. This recognition takes various forms and confers different rights in different countries.
GreyCountries without Sign Language RecognitionCountries that have not achieved national-level legal recognition of their national sign language are depicted in this color.  Some countries may have recognition on sub-national levels.
OrangeConstitutional RecognitionCountries that have achieved sign language recognition at the Constitutional level.
YellowGeneral Language LegislationCountries that have included their national sign language in their general language legislation.
TurquoiseSign Language Law or ActCountries that have achieved legal recognition of their national sign language in the form of a law passed by the national legislative body.
GreenSign Language Law or Act  including other means of communicationCountries that have achieved the legal recognition of their national sign language in a law that also recognises other forms of communication used by deaf persons and usually includes communication used by deafblind persons.  This type of recognition can be in the form of a law passed by a parliament or a decree or high-level government legislation.
PurpleNational Language Council RecognitionCountries that have achieved legal recognition of their national sign language in legislation based on a functioning of a language council.
RedDisability LegislationCountries that have achieved legal recognition of their national sign language in the form of general disability legislation. This can be a law passed by a national legislative body or executive legislation.

For easier viewing here is the list of the 61 countries that have achieved Sign Language Legislation and the year:

CountryYear of Sign Language Recognition
Albania2014
Austria2005
Bangladesh2013
Belgium2003, 2006 and 2019
Bolivia2009
Bosnia and Herzegovina2009
Brazil2002 and 2005
Bulgaria2021
Canada2019
Chile2021
Colombia1996
Costa Rica2020
Croatia2015
Cyprus2006
Czech Republic1998 and 2008
Denmark2014
Ecuador2008
El Salvador2014
Estonia2007
Finland1995
Germany2002
Greece2017
Guatemala2020
Honduras2013
Hungary2009
Iceland2011
India2016
Ireland2017
Japan2011
Kenya2010
Kosovo2010 and 2014
Latvia1999
Lithuania1995
Luxembourg2018
Malta2016
Mexico2005
Netherlands2020
New Zealand2006
Nicaragua2009
Norway2021
Panama1992
Papua New Guinea2015
Paraguay2020
Peru2010
Philippines2018
Poland2011
Portugal1997
Republic of Korea2015
Romania2002
Russian Federation2012
Slovakia1995
Slovenia2002
South Africa1996
Spain2007 and 2010
Sweden1981, 2006 and 2009
Turkey2005
Uganda1995
Ukraine2004, 2017 and 2019
Uruguay2001
Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of)1999
Zimbabwe2010
Update: 1 April 2021

The WFD continues to receive updated information on sign language recognition.  If your country’s national sign language legislation is not featured here, please contact the WFD’s Sign Language Rights Officer, Susana Stiglich, at susana.stiglich@wfdeaf.org with the evidence of this legislation.


De Meulder, M. (2015). The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages. Sign Language Studies, 15(4), 498–506. doi: 10.1353/sls.2015.0018

Murray, Joseph J. (2020). “The Recognition of Sign Languages in the Achievement of Deaf People’s Human Rights” Side Event. 13th Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  World Federation of the Deaf.3 December 2020. https://wfdeaf.org/cosp2020-sideevent/