Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

A Stronger Reason for the Right to Sign Languages

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

A Stronger Reason for the Right to Sign Languages

Article excerpt


Is the right to sign language only the right to a minority language? Holding a capability (not a disability) approach, and building on the psycholinguistic literature on sign language acquisition, I make the point that this right is of a stronger nature, since only sign languages can guarantee that each deaf child will properly develop the linguistic and cognitive potentialities with whom (s)he is endowed at birth. So, the right to sign language is also the right to the integrity of the person.

THIS IS A SPECIAL time for Deaf people in the world: International institutions have discovered sign languages. In 1988 the European Parliament ratified its first Resolution on Sign Languages for Deaf People. This was the first of many more opinions and recommendations by the same institution, the most significant of which is the 1998 Resolution on Sign Languages.

On December 13, 2006, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stated that Deaf people are entitled to communicate through sign languages. Since international statements are about to be employed at a state level, this is a perfect time to think about the nature of the right to sign languages.1

In this article I address the following question: Is the right to sign language the same as the right to a minority language? A minority language is a language that is spoken in a country by a small portion of the population and (typically) does not have an official status (i.e., is not enforced by the law), but can aspire to have one.

On the basis of recent research, I maintain that the right to sign language is not only as strong as the right to a minority language, but is indeed even stronger, because it is the right to have normal social and cognitive development.

The Classification of Rights

Following Vasak (2004), thinkers have classified rights according to three groups based on the timing of their acquisition; see table 1.

The first group includes individual rights, civil, and political rights. Individual rights include the right to dignity, to personal integrity, to citizenship, to one's name, and to equal treatment before the law. Civil and political rights include freedom of association, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of religious belief, and the right to vote and to be elected. These rights were the first to arrive on the political scene. Most of them were established in the United States and France at the beginning of the contemporary age (i.e., at the end of eighteenth century). In the United States they were the result of the economic rebellion against colonial powers; in France, they were enforced after five hundred years of ancien regime, which was overthrown in 1789.

Politically, these rights were employed for the first time in the most ancient complexes of norms in the world, which were called constitutions. In addition, their ideals, critical of the past and constructive with regard to the future, constituted the center of all future democratic constitutions of the world (up to today - and possibly beyond). Every constitution includes at least one of these rights but not necessarily all of them. They are the most ancient rights, and this makes them particularly strong. So, summarizing, they concern every single citizen (they are individual); they concern everyone (they are universal); and each democratic constitution in the world includes some of them.

Socioeconomic rights belong to the second generation, which appeared shortly after the first generation. They include the right to work, to have a home, to have affordable health care, and so on. This group is the result of economic struggles that began in the eighteenth century. These rights are found especially in Europe. In the United States there is typically little interest in them. They are very strong in welfare states, however, such as Western Europe, and before 1989 they were also important in socialist states. …

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