One of the most important priorities in the work of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) is to ensure human rights for Deaf people all over the world, in every aspect of life. Human rights are universal and they belong to everyone regardless of sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status such as disability or deafness. Thus, Deaf people are entitled to exercise civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights on an equal basis with everyone else.
Unfortunately, though, the rights of Deaf people are often overlooked, especially in developing countries. Societal prejudices and barriers prevent Deaf people from enjoying full human rights; for Deaf people the major barrier is lack of recognition, acceptance and use of sign language in all areas of life as well as lack of respect for Deaf people’s cultural and linguistic identity.
Most of the Deaf people do not get any education in developing countries and approximately 80 % of the world’s 70 million Deaf people do not have any access to education. Only about 1-2 % of the Deaf get education in sign language. Particularly situation of Deaf women and children is weak. Legal development and recognition of sign languages promotes Deaf people’s equal participation in the society.
Within this focus, WFD advises the UN and its agencies on specific issues and policies which affect Deaf people. It represents the Deaf community within the UN system and supports Deaf associations and authorities throughout the world by providing consultancy, expertise and advice.
How to understand deaf rights?
Even though Deaf people have the same rights as everyone else, implementation of four basic factors is tantamount to the protection of the human rights of Deaf people:
Sign languages in each country are natural languages of Deaf people. The very general misunderstanding is that sign language is universal, the same in every country. In reality, sign languages vary from country to country just as spoken languages do. Each natural sign language that is being used by Deaf community is part of the country’s cultural, social, historical and religious heritage. In order to preserve the full heritage of each country, it is necessary to respect sign languages. Recognition of sign language(s) is also a way to enhance and give respect to the overall linguistic and cultural heritage of each country and of humankind.
The enrolment rate and literacy among Deaf children is far below the average for the population at large. Illiteracy and semi-literacy are serious problems among Deaf people.
Like all children, Deaf children must have access to equal and quality education. Deaf children are born with the same basic capacities for learning and language as all children; they can and should reach their full potential with quality educational programmes.
Deaf children learn best in sign language. A bilingual approach is becoming more popular in many countries. It means that teaching language is sign language in all subjects for Deaf
children. At the same time, it has a strong emphasis on teaching reading and writing skills of the language used in the country or society. This approach has facilitated in good learning results, because it supports the natural learning and communication environment of a Deaf child.
Bilingual education has become more widespread in particular in North Europe and North America. It has showed good results with increased literacy level and a strong language base, which equips for better success in the broad range of educational subjects.
For Deaf people, barriers to access are rarely about physical obstacles. More often the barriers lie in lack of accessible information, whether this information comes through direct interaction with other people who do not use sign language, or from other sources (e.g. mass media, documents, etc.). In direct interaction, accessibility often rests upon the availability of sign language interpreters. In other information distribution, Deaf people’s right to obtain information in sign language should extend into official documents (sign language translations), mass media (sign language news and programmes) and many other issues in order to increase Deaf people’s opportunities to make free and informed decisions.
A key factor for accessibility to government services or any other service run by institutions where the personnel do not use sign language, is the right to sign language interpreter. Societies need to create a system for provision of and equal access to sign language interpreters for all situations where they are requested. The Deaf person or associations of the Deaf should not be responsible for the related expenses, instead, these services should be provided by the society, without creating any costs or economic disadvantage to Deaf individual or Deaf association.
Sign language interpreting is a profession that serves both Deaf and hearing people, and the profession requires training. Thus, states need to create educational programmes to train and qualify sign language interpreters. Knowing some sign language, and a commitment to ‘help’ Deaf and hearing people to communicate, is not a qualification to become or serve as a sign language interpreter. In addition, sign language interpreters must follow a Code of Ethics of the country in order to preserve professional confidentiality and good understanding of the duties and roles that are required from a professional sign language interpreter.
Sign language is at the core of Deaf people’s lives; sign language makes accessibility for Deaf people possible; without accessibility, Deaf people will be isolated. Thus, full enjoyment of human rights for Deaf people is based on the recognition and respect for Deaf culture and identity. Everywhere in the world, language creates culture and vice versa.