Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Linguistic Human Rights Discourse in Deaf Community Activism

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Linguistic Human Rights Discourse in Deaf Community Activism

Article excerpt

The Turn to Linguistic Human Rights

Deaf community organizations' current focus on linguistic human rights was not inevitable. In fact, a wide variety of issues related to deaf people demands attention. As with other people with physical, sensory, or cognitive differences, deaf people are either unemployed or underemployed ( World Report on Disability 2011). In some countries today deaf people are denied basic citizenship rights, such as equal voting rights during public elections (World Federation of the Deaf 20T4). While Deaf community organizations in Western countries advocate for bilingual education for deaf children, in many other areas of the world, deaf people do not have access to any school whatsoever. The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) estimates over 80% of deaf children do not have access to education (World Federation of the Deaf, n.d.). Clearly, a range of challenges exists for deaf people and deaf community organizations, challenges that vary due to developed or developing country status, rural or urban status, political system, gender, and other factors.

Currently a number of organizations of deaf people have designated linguistic human rights as one of their key priorities. A 2014 WFD survey of its 133 member organizations, made up of one national association of deaf people per country, asked deaf associations to share items from their present strategic plans. The WFD uses the World Bank's classification of countries by gross national income to determine membership fees, and this article adopts the same classification when reviewing the data presented here. Of the 73 countries that returned the survey, 49 had strategic plans, and 48 listed their main objectives. The data from the survey have not been fully analyzed as of this writing, but an initial review shows wide heterogeneity in strategic goals across country income categories. Economic development, employment, and capacity-building objectives, while perceived as more common issues in low-income countries, are also strategic priorities for high-income nations as well. At the same time, advocacy for implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and goals related to sign language rights and/or sign language planning activities also feature as strategic goals in countries in each income category. Advocacy for human rights via sign language, seemingly more prevalent in developed countries, is nonetheless found across all three World Bank categories (World Federation of the Deaf Ordinary Member Survey 2014).

This turn to sign language rights and human rights discourse offers deaf advocacy organizations a way of packaging a number of rights within a framework that seems to offer relatively simple legislative solutions to complex problems related to the full acceptance of deaf people as linguistic minorities and their participation in the larger society. According to this framework, deaf people can achieve equality when national sign languages are given full support by governments and society. The reality has proven to be different, however (also see De Meulder and McKee and Manning, this issue).

In this article I describe some central tenets of this human rights discourse by reviewing public documents from international organizations in which a human rights discourse based on sign language rights has emerged and been articulated. Little work has been done on the emergence and transmission of this discourse among national deaf advocacy organizations (for one upcoming study, see De Meulder forthcoming), but the phenomenon of transnational activism in deaf communities has been noted in the contemporary era (Valentine and Skelton 2007) and in the nineteenth century (Murray 2007).

It is useful to view the deaf community's sign language based rights discourse as a form of language planning activity. The promotion of legislation related to sign languages is a form of language planning. Reagan (2010) describes four aspects of language planning relevant to sign languages: efforts to set spheres of use for languages, such as designating official languages, is status planning. …

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