On November 9th and 10th, I attended the third International Conference of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). Under the motto: “Full Inclusion with Sign Language” over 700 participants gathered in Budapest, Hungary to exchange on key issues for the Deaf Community around the world. Key topics included bilingual education, employment, political participation and technology.
This conference was an excellent opportunity to celebrate achievements made by the Deaf Community over the last years, but also to look at the long way that is still ahead towards full inclusion.
An area in which both victories and outstanding struggles can be observed is the recognition of Sign Language in all countries across the globe. While participants highlighted the many breakthroughs that were achieved since the first-ever recognition in the US in the 1960s (today more than 100 Sign Languages are recognised), in many places Sign Language is still not recognised an official language, a language that has the same status as the respective national/spoken languages(s). The recognition of Sign Language is not purely a legal matter! It has massive implications for people’s lives, as it is the precondition for participation on an equal basis with others in basically all areas of life.
An area of particular challenge remains employment. The situation obviously varies significantly from one country to another, but the employment rate of people who are Deaf is generally very low compared to the average of the population. There is a multitude of factors leading to that situation . Some of them are discriminatory practices by employers, their lack of understanding of the Deaf Culture and lack of knowledge of what needs to be put in place in order to provide an inclusive work environment. In addition, the many challenges that people who are Deaf often face in education can lead to a lower starting point when applying for a job than is the case for hering “competitors”.
During the conference, a number of promising examples on how to improve the employment situation of persons who are Deaf were presented. They revolve around the three compoenents of 1. Raising awareness amongst employers of the rights of employees who are Deaf, 2. Encouraging and training Deaf people to apply for jobs and three. Creating Deaf-led businesses.
Whether in employment or other areas of life, the biggest obstacle to full inclusion remains, however, that too often society focuses on the “disability” rather than viewing people who are Deaf just as people! This is certainly true for persons with disabilities more generally. One example that there still is a long way to go strongly resonated with me: How often it happens to people who are Deaf that their Sign Language interpreter is approached by others rather than being approached directly. This is a situation I know – as a blind person – far too well: When I am accompanied by an assistant, questions such as: “Can he walk the stairs?” are often addressed to the assistant. This should be “Can YOU walk the stairs?” This is not a matter of political correctness; it is simply how all of us would like to be treated, namely as full members of society!