This month we published The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages edited by Maartje De Meulder, Joseph J. Murray and Rachel L. McKee. In this post, and the accompanying video at the end, the editors explain why this book is so important.
Since the 1990s, when Finland and Uganda were the first countries to give their sign languages legal status in law, many countries have followed suit or are still campaigning to achieve recognition of their national sign language(s) in legislation. Until now, these campaigns and their outcomes have remained understudied: why have deaf communities felt that it was necessary to achieve legal status for their sign languages? How does this status relate to that of spoken languages in a specific country? Who was involved in the campaigns? Were there specific strategies used to achieve certain outcomes? Did the legislation have any effect and if so, what kind of effect? Some of these questions have been discussed in separate journal articles or book chapters, but a comprehensive overview and analysis of these laws and campaigns was lacking until now.
Our new book has partly filled this gap. It appears in a context of increasing interest in sign language rights, both among academics and within deaf community discourses. For example, the theme of the upcoming World Federation of the Deaf conference in Paris will be “Sign Language Rights for All”, Norway is preparing a Language Act and draft legislation for Sign Language of the Netherlands will soon be introduced.
The book contains 18 chapters discussing the situation of diverse countries in Europe, USA, South America and Asia. Chapters discuss how countries achieved legal status for sign language, and the state of implementation. This book does not just focus on sign languages; chapter authors discuss the status of the national sign language(s) in relation to laws and policies for spoken languages, and certain ideologies about languages.
While some chapters discuss very recent sign language laws, other chapters look back and assess impact. Other chapters discuss ongoing campaigns. All together, they illustrate the different ways that sign language laws are implemented and managed by governments and deaf communities. For some countries, this book is the first time that the information is available in English.
The campaigns which are the focus of this book were often led by national deaf associations working in partnership with academics in sign language linguistics or Deaf Studies. Since many of these campaigns took place in the past decade, key activists are still involved, and in the book we have actively encouraged academic/community collaborations. All chapters are joint writing efforts of deaf and hearing academics and language activists active in campaigning, researching, or policy work.
The word ‘recognition’ in the book’s title reveals a unique aspect of campaigns for the legal status of sign languages. In most cases it refers to the ‘recognition’ or acknowledgement by governments that sign languages are languages. This concern about sign languages’ status as ‘real’ tends not to occur with other minority languages and is linked to a long history of sign languages being seen as inferior, not ‘real’ languages.
By now, we know that sign languages are languages and the time has come to focus on what it means to effectively recognize those languages and their speakers. This is also the main take-away message of this book: legal status in itself, while often presented as such, is not a panacea. It’s not an end point, but merely a beginning. It is only one part of the bigger picture that alters the status of a language.
We hope this book helps elucidate the process of the legal recognition of sign languages, shows how this is similar or different from other minority language laws, and guides other countries in their campaigns and reflections about future directions.
For more information about this book please see our website.
Next year will mark 15 years since the publication of Jenny Froude’s book Making Sense in Sign: A Lifeline for a Deaf Child, inspired by her profoundly deaf son, Tom. In this post, Jenny updates us on Tom’s story (he is now a father himself!) and reflects on her experience as a parent of a deaf child.
When my book about my profoundly deaf son (now being reprinted, to order) was launched in 2003, I handed him a copy saying “This is your life Tom – and you can write the sequel”! He rashly agreed, saying and signing that I would have to wait another 20 years! Despite his language in emails being so expressive, I doubt he will be doing that, as he’s too busy working, creating a home and, above all, enjoying his young family with his deaf wife.
It was texts that alerted me to the good news of their births. “It’s baby girl, Daisy Mary Froude … natural birth no drugs used. Both doing well” and, 28 months later “it happened all so fast. So we got beautiful boy Oliver. Came into this world 7.08 p.m. Not weighted (sic) yet”. I loved his wording; not a bald “born” but four words that gave more gravity to the event. Both babies were born three weeks early, in a tremendous hurry to arrive, and both passed, as expected, their Newborn Hearing Screening.
In my book, two letters in the Appendix were written by me to Tom, the first when he was barely one year old, the second as he started in secondary school. Were I to write another now, it would be to congratulate him, not only on all he has achieved, but on his skills as a parent. In his own words, he never takes his survival from meningitis at 5 months for granted but, delighting in his new status, said in an anniversary email in August 2013 “bless you for remembering me on this special day that I fought for life. How lucky am I to be here and be a new dad and living my dream!” He had already described, a month earlier, how newborn Daisy “is still bringing joy in our household” and reminded us we didn’t need to be invited to visit. “Time is precious and I want you to enjoy seeing Daisy grow before she gets big”. Later, when his “golden boy” Oliver arrived, he wrote “I love his reactions when he sees me smile back to him. Melts my heart”. Such descriptions must surely be a testimony to his early communication via signing and I shall forever be indebted to the peripatetic teacher who suggested it.
Just as most parents hang on to every one of their infant’s utterances, so I hung on to Tom’s early signs and now I have the joy of watching his hearing children develop their signed and spoken language. The years disappeared as I watched first his daughter (now 4) and then his son (21 months) sign “bird” with baby hands, just as he had done over 30 years ago!
As a lovingly observant father, it was Tom himself who first noticed that 5-month old Daisy was “getting more fascinated with her hands”. She spent her first Christmas studying them intently at frequent intervals, obviously already aware of what a large part hands played in family life! Poignantly that very day she was exactly the same age as her father had been when near-fatal meningitis struck and robbed him of his hearing.
Oliver, a carbon copy of his dad at the same age, minus the cumbersome bodyworn hearing aid of the early 80s, already has a repertoire of signs and phrases, and babbles beautifully, just as his sister did. I smile as I think back to all those concerned people who asked me “how will they ever learn to speak?”! This sociable little family is surrounded by hearing people of all ages and both love, and are loved by, their part-time nursery school. There have been times, though, when despite both parents’ brilliant lip-reading, an amusing throwaway remark from a toddler has provoked an involuntary laugh from me, and I have looked up to see a quizzical expression on their faces, needing an explanation of my mirth. That can feel painful for both parties…
When Tom was tiny, waiting outside our gate for the school bus, we often met a lady who was fascinated by him because her parents were deaf, which had an enormous influence on her, making her very independent and self-reliant and teaching her tolerance and compassion. She felt she had learnt to understand people, not only through their words but also through interpreting body language, a valuable skill indeed.
I saw this valuable sensitivity manifest in Daisy at 24 months, when she was alerted to the sound of dogs barking. What had been just background noise to me had obviously changed to a frenzied tone which she detected immediately, racing across the garden to fetch her mother, who found a stranger at the door! She also taps her parents to gain attention, lipspeaks with a whisper when occasion calls for it, and signs when making a request or relaying something of interest.
Thanks to their very grounded parents, both youngsters are calm and contented. Oliver’s very infrequent protests seem to be silent ones! After delighting in his first Easter egg hunt his little face said it all as it came to an end. Sorrow and fury combined – but no sound. No howls of rage, just a facial expression to convey his feelings, and all over in a second! How does he know that screams are lost on deaf ears?
Thirty odd years ago I was astounded when a Social Worker with Deaf people was relieved and delighted to find a couple’s newborn baby was deaf. She saw my shock and explained that, had she been hearing, that baby would be destined to grow up having to take responsibility for interpreting for her deaf parents, even in inappropriate circumstances. I cannot imagine our grandchildren ever being burdened with such responsibility but it is interesting to see how, just as their parents are so sensitively attuned to their needs, they seem to adjust to life with the mother and father they obviously adore! It leads to fascinating family dynamics.
In an age now which is more Deaf Aware, people rightly expect access to a fully qualified professional interpreter, especially in legal, medical and educational settings. MP Dawn Butler has made the case for BSL to have legal status as in other countries and, since 2003, it has been recognised here as a language in its own right. And it is reported that University College London will recognise sign language as a foreign language for the first time from September 2017.
Making Sense in Sign has been reviewed by professionals, parents and deaf organisations. A fellow author described its strength as “making the subject accessible to a much wider field than a specialised audience”, a Teacher of the Deaf referred to it as an “inspiration”, seeing language development outside the “narrow confines of the classroom” and concluded “professionals should read this book and refer back to it often”. It has also been seen as a “valuable contribution, long needed in a world that so often presents a negative view of deafness”. Another journalist described it as “moving, instructive, uplifting, funny, thought-provoking and very well written” and a consultant trainer in childcare as “essential reading for care and education professionals, social workers, health visitors and and speech therapists … a moving story which brings the concept of partnership with parents to the fore”. And, yet another, as a “sound and sensitive appreciation of the D/deaf issues: sign, implants”. A mother of a deaf daughter wrote “a book full of hope and exuberant delight in a beloved child”.
I look back down the years with huge gratitude to Series Editor Colin Baker’s insight and apparent appreciation of the personal aspects of my book which were left in and without which I would have felt Tom’s story was compromised. I am gratified that it is read by professionals and students of sign language, and delighted that, as a human story, it is recommended and reaches parents with a deaf child.
Completed, as it was, by Tom’s 21st birthday, my book covered various issues. There are different ones today but parents are still likely to be shell-shocked at an infant’s initial diagnosis at such a vulnerable time. When Tom was deafened as a baby there were 3 specialist social workers in our borough; today there are none. This lack puts added pressure on Teachers of the Deaf who are responsible for ages 0 to 19 years, overseeing audiology and speech and language therapy provision and now social care. Deaf teenagers whose families have never learned to sign are likely to feel isolated at home and those in mainstream can struggle with identity problems. Mental health issues mean that specialist counselling is sorely needed. Good CHSWGS (Children’s Hearing Services Working Groups) bring together all the disciplines which cover hearing loss and can be a forum that benefits all parties, empowering and informing parents.
Via his emails, which have been one of my rewards for all we did to chase language together, Tom has painted a picture of his life today and proved to me that the signs we used have stood him in good stead and given him the power to express his personality. A while ago I had the privilege of signing Bob Chilcott’s beautiful “Can You Hear Me?” in a concert by a local community choir. “My world’s a silent one but it’s enough for me. I hear you through your hands, the movement sets me free. But it would be a special thing tohear your voice, to hear you sing” and it ends with a poignant “can you hear me….?”
My voice is my book. I can hear him through his emails. Both of these are special things.
For more information about this book please see our website.
Author of Making Sense in Sign, Jenny Froude writes here about the importance of sign language for deaf children and includes her own experience with her profoundly deaf son Tom, who her book is based on.
This week, nearly 3 decades after he started there, I was back in the Unit (albeit rebuilt and changed beyond recognition) where our youngest son attended nursery school with his deaf peers. Same site, same Teacher of the Deaf and still the same need: Sign Language!
I was there on an Open Day, to see if the small local charity I represent can assist with some funding for basic, baby signing for new parents. Kate Rowley from the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre gave a presentation on Language Development and Bilingualism. As a deaf daughter of deaf parents, growing up with spoken English and BSL, with both a deaf and hearing child herself and an academic background, she explained the myths and facts about sign language and how language develops.
To some of us there she was reiterating what we had already learned from years of experience but younger parents needed the confidence she could give them. Deaf children are developing English as they learn to sign and by reading with them, using fingerspelling (activated from the same part of the brain) and encouraging them to use correct mouth patterns when signing, even voicelessly, understanding is aided. In an ideal world a deaf child within a hearing family should see them automatically signing amongst themselves, not reserving it for when language is directed specifically at him/her, otherwise they can miss out on the wealth of information hearing children pick up incidentally. (Despite my being acutely aware of this it was not, and still is not, always easy to incorporate in busy family life, especially on social occasions when trying to be hostess/guest/wife/mother and now grandmother! So a minus point for me there then!)
If sign language is reserved solely for the deaf youngster in a hearing environment, he or she can feel it is a less valued communication method, explained Kate, but I hope our son’s slight hiccup in writing an explanation at a young age under his name “proudly found deaf” (instead of “profoundly deaf”) was a significant slip acknowledging his own worth!
Kate concluded by stressing “anything is possible WITH good language skills. Deaf people CAN learn both English and BSL”. I have only to read newly-married Tom’s emails to appreciate the truth of that. He uses sophisticated words, for which I have no idea of the signs, in the correct context and, as I wrote in my book, when he was starting secondary school “to see you grow up, profoundly deaf, with an abundance of confidence, good humour and concern for others, to see and hear you use language not only for basic needs but to negotiate, to soothe, to tease, to cajole, to question, to predict is a bonus we never dared dream of...” Each thank you card after his wedding was personally written by hand and far, far more than a mere bread-and-butter version!
Interestingly both he and his deaf bride elected to make their vows using sign and voice, which proves they embrace both cultures, and to all those people who confuse speech with language and look at me in disbelief when I say Tom’s language is amazing (although his speech is not clear) I would attribute it to the excellent advice we had from a peripatetic teacher who suggested starting to sign at one year. I hope today’s vulnerable new parents will find in signing the same joy and delight I did. And, even better, with the vogue for hearing babies to learn signs to “jump start” their language I think any remaining “stigma” (sad though that word makes me feel) some might see in what I consider the lovely method of communication that is a lifeline for some deaf children, could be removed now it is in the mainstream. And, hopefully, that new generation will grow up being fascinated rather than fazed by watching sign language being used, whether by deaf people or interpreters. That has to be a plus!
The biggest stumbling block in the current economic climate would seem to be the prohibitive cost of sign language classes and the lack of specialist social workers with deaf children. The system is letting them down.
To prevent the angst that is prevalent among some in the older deaf community who feel they were let down years ago by a lack of communication in their hearing families, today’s deaf youngsters (90% of whom are from hearing families) deserve the best we can give them in the way of early communication suited to their needs and hopefully Kate Rowley’s research and presentation (and my book) have suggested the way to go.
For further information about the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre please see their website.
For further information about Jenny’s book please see our website.