“With sign language, everyone is included!” A new celebration set on the first day of Deaf Awareness week claims this tagline, hopefully marking the beginning of a new era for Deaf people all over the world.
The United Nations declared this past Sunday, Sept. 23, the first annual international Day of Sign Languages, bringing awareness to the need for accessibility for all. More than 300 different sign languages are used around the globe by about 72 million Deaf people, and celebrating this day calls attention to the fact that many people do not have access to formal education using sign language. Without this fundamental right, many Deaf people are forced to live in a hearing world with little to no accommodations or support. This severely limits opportunities for success and stunts the growth of culture among Deaf people. Recognition of the Day of Sign Languages is an important step toward a wider acknowledgement of the validity of sign languages and their importance to the Deaf world.
The sign language closest to home, American Sign Language, or ASL, is an excellent symbol to represent the significance of allowing Deaf people to communicate in their own language. Over the past 250 years, ASL has evolved, spread and overcome various setbacks, now serving as the primary language for between 250,000 and 500,000 Americans and Canadians.
Aside from having a distinct language, the Deaf community has a rich culture that is different in many ways from American culture, proving that language itself is a key component in finding a sense of belonging and developing an identity within a group.
Though it is now accepted as its own language, ASL is currently recovering from a long, hard-fought battle against oppression. In 1880 it was decided that all Deaf children should receive an oral education and signing in classrooms was banned. Signing was not seen as a valid language and was considered inferior to spoken languages.
This attitude carried on for almost a century, until the 1960s. At that point, ASL and Deaf culture revealed their resilience. Beginning when linguists at Gallaudet University, the first university specifically designed for Deaf students, proving that ASL is its own language and not only gestures representing English words and grammar. The resurgence of ASL continued with a student protest, overturning the election of a hearing president over a Deaf candidate at Gallaudet University.
While ASL is well into its climb over the mountain of injustice, in many other countries the hike has just begun. Only two percent of the millions of Deaf people have access to sign language education and some countries still do not recognize sign languages as equal to spoken language. This causes alienation of Deaf people, barring them from education, work and society as a whole.
Nyle DiMarco, a Deaf model, actor and advocate, says that without sign languages, Deaf children are victim to language deprivation and “can only define their own lives in a very limited box.”
Carlos Rios Espinosa, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, has observed this tragedy firsthand. In Brazil, many people with disabilities live their whole lives in institutions, including Deaf people. They were never taught to use sign language, so they have no effective means of communication with anyone, whether it be staff, other residents or the world outside of the institution. Because of the lack of sign language education, staff often assumed that the Deaf could not be educated.
“Language should be inclusive to everyone,” Espinosa said.
By raising awareness about sign languages around the world, the Day of Sign Languages will hopefully prevent the exclusion of Deaf people and call attention to the 98 percent of those without access to education. There is a long road marked out toward the inclusion of Deaf people everywhere, but the first annual Day of Sign Languages shows that we are headed in the right direction.
Meghan Shaw is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached cia email at firstname.lastname@example.org.