Last year, the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) ran its annual International Week of the Deaf. September 19th to 25th 2016 marked a short but packed week of events all over the world aimed at raising awareness of the languages, cultures and rights of deaf people in their respective countries. Every year the WFD picks a theme that is some aspect in the lives of deaf people that is crucial enough to be focused on for one week per year. The pressing theme last year was “With Sign Language, I am Equal” — an echo of the theme from the year before, “With Sign Language Rights, Our Children Can!”
It goes without saying that language rights are something of high importance for the deaf. It is not just for one week per year that there is a plea for the right to use the native languages of the deaf. Within activism in deaf communities all over the world, fighting for linguistic rights is inextricable and inescapable in fighting for deaf rights.
The deaf most often don’t see themselves as possessing a disability. The fact is that the biggest barrier in a deaf person’s life — what prevents them from getting an equal education, being trained, getting the job they want (and the salary they deserve), accessing information and knowledge and being judged as equal in society is the language barrier.
Deaf people all over world wherever they have come into contact with hearing or other deaf people have created and use indigenous sign languages which are languages with just as much systematic grammar and lexicon as spoken languages. Like spoken languages, signed languages vary vastly according to region, have accents and are rich with cultural knowledge. For far too long, the equal status of signed languages has not been recognized by societies and their governments. Even linguists, the scientists dedicated to researching languages, have only recently begun taking signed languages as seriously as spoken ones. But deaf people have known forever that access to and the ability to use a signed language is a crucial factor in the development of a deaf person’s life and by extension, the flourishing of deaf communities across the globe.
The United Nations’ Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities declares that deaf people deserve “recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic identity, including sign languages and deaf culture” and advocates that for maximum equality in education, deaf people need access to sign language in education. Within even a brief moment on the field, it is clear to see that what the Convention declares and the reality that deaf persons face are worlds apart.
During the first running of the Structure and Usage of Caribbean Sign Language courses at the St Augustine campus at UWI, we took a trip to a few places in the south of Trinidad that were a bit rural to meet any deaf persons living there, observe how they communicated with their friends and families and their lifestyles. We had the privilege of meeting several hospitable deaf persons and their hearing friends and families who were eager to help us on our endeavor by pointing us in the right direction and inviting us into their homes. The spirit of deaf community is alive there as it is across Trinidad and Tobago along with, sadly, the same plea for equal rights in education and the work place.
Inherent to this grievance is the absence of recognition and measures to support Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language. The lack of sign language interpreters in schools means that children cannot get meaningful education without attending a deaf school in Trinidad which for some of the persons we met meant having to move, rent or stay by relatives during the school term so that they could attend school which was so far away. One woman told us she had to stop going to school because it too hard because of the distance and cost. Her hearing father, determined to support his daughter’s future, hired professionals to come to their house to train his daughter in sewing. Today she sustains herself by being a seamstress. Even when persons are able to attend a deaf school, such as the Cascade School for the Deaf — the first deaf school in Trinidad and Tobago, they have no options after graduating for Deaf education is only available up to high school. The gaping lack of sign language interpreters and training for new interpreters means that a deaf person would not have access to the same tertiary education as their compatriots unless they hired an interpreter at an exuberant cost.
This year, Dr Ben Braithwaite, coordinator of the Caribbean Sign Language Diploma at UWI, and I decided to compile the comments of the deaf community into a video that would be accessible to wider society. The video was instantly a hit, gaining 10 000 views on Facebook within the first 3 days:
We told them to talk about anything they wanted to, it was not scripted. The responses focused mainly on support for sign language interpretation and better deaf education.
The benefits of early access to sign languages for deaf people is evident. Without full access to a sign language in their early years, deaf children suffer greatly, not only cognitively but also psychologically and socially. Language deprivation prevents deaf children from fully acquiring the cognitive skills required to succeed in school and society. Literacy is founded in first language acquisition so without sign language, deaf children run a higher risk of illiteracy leading to high rates of unemployment, imprisonment, poverty and poor health. Deaf children need access to sign language and other deaf children their age to development their linguistic and social ability. This allows them to later be productive and well integrated members of society who can stand equally alongside their hearing compatriots.
Deaf people all across the globe have been repeating it for years: with sign language, deaf children can become anything they would like. With sign language, barriers can be broken down. Even though the call brings attention to the plight of deaf people everywhere, we don’t have to look far. It is worthy to start with our own fellow deaf Trinbagonians whose needs have been too long invisible to the mainstream eye.