International Week of the Deaf and International Day of Sign Languages 2019

Two students of EECMY School for the Deaf chat in sign language in Ethiopia. 2018 ©CBM

Derbe chats with her best friend Netanet in sign language during lunch break at EECMY School for the Deaf, a CBM partner, in Ethiopia. ©CBM

Monday 23 September 2019 commemorates International Day of Sign Languages and the start of International Week of the Deaf, two important initiatives to raise awareness about the deaf community.

International Week of the Deaf is a World Federation of the Deaf initiative, celebrated this year from 23 through 29 September. Launched in 1958 in Rome, Italy at the first World Federation of the Deaf World Congress, it has since gained momentum and awareness and is now celebrated annually.

This international week helps to promote awareness of human rights and sign languages by hosting a variety of events around the globe. These activities call for participation and involvement of various stakeholders including families, peers, governmental bodies, professional sign language interpreters, organisations of persons with disabilities and civil society organisations like CBM.

It is about uniting as a global community to promote the rights of deaf people and highlight specific human rights topics that merit attention.

This year, 23 September also marks the second International Day of Sign Languages, a special day proclaimed by the UN General Assembly to raise awareness of the importance of sign languages and strengthen the status of sign languages.

The cross-cutting 2019 theme for both the international week and day is “Sign Languages Rights For All!

This international day recognizes the importance of sign languages for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and fulfilling its core promise of leaving no one behind. It also offers an opportunity to support and protect the linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all sign language users.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Sign languages are languages!

It is often misunderstood that sign languages are gestures and not fully functioning language with grammar, syntax etc. However, this is not correct. Sign languages are fully fledged natural languages, structurally distinct from the spoken languages. 

There is also an international sign, which is used by deaf people in international meetings and informally when travelling and socialising. It is considered a pidgin form of sign language that is not as complex as natural sign languages and has a limited lexicon. 

Sign languages are promoted and recognised in the UN CRPD as having equal status with spoken languages. Member States are obliged to recognise the linguistic identity of deaf people and their communities. 

Early access to sign language, families learning sign language, services in sign language and engagement with the deaf community as well as access to early intervention and quality education available in sign language, is vital to the growth and development of a deaf child. Preserving sign languages as part of linguistic and cultural diversity is recognised as is the principle of “nothing about us without us” in terms of working with deaf communities.

How CBM supports sign language in its work

CBM supports various programmes promoting the rights of deaf people, sign language and access to education within its initiatives, including education, mental health, ear and hearing care and community-based inclusive development. CBM adopts a rights-based, disability-inclusive development approach, ensuring disability representation, gender equality and safeguarding in all its work.

For deaf employees, CBM provides sign language interpreters and / or real-time captioning as required for visits or meetings (internal and external) according to individual needs. In addition, hearing colleagues are provided with opportunities to learn sign language and attend deaf culture sessions. These can be in-house courses, learning from deaf colleagues or attending sign language classes externally.

CBM supports inclusive education programmes of deaf children

CBM supports various education programmes where deaf and hearing children attend the same school and where individualised communication support is provided. This year CBM would like to highlight one such inclusive education programme in Côte d’Ivoire.

This inclusive education project in Côte d’Ivoire is implemented by Society Without Border – Côte d’Ivoire, a local NGO, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education in Côte d'Ivoire, with the financial support of the European Union and CBM Germany.

Before inclusive education was established, there was only one public special school for learners who are deaf or hard of hearing to access education in Côte d’Ivoire, the Ivorian School for the Deaf (ECIS). The school programme provides education from nursery school to the 6th year of primary school. However, there was limited capacity to support other learners who are deaf or hard of hearing to attend school. 

In order to meet their child’s need for education, many families from areas outside Abidjan sought host families to support their children to have access to specialised education. Attending ECIS for many meant that children had to stay away from their families and communities in order to access education. Due to limited boarding facilities something had to be done to reach children not attending or boarding at the school. 

Some children would attend their local mainstream school, but there would be little or no reasonable accommodation in place to meet their support and inclusion needs.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Education, SWB-CI is preparing educators to learn sign language and techniques in including deaf children in their class. There are specialist classes where deaf children learn together and classes where they join hearing children. At ECIS children are taught by deaf and hearing teachers. This allows for the important exposure to deaf culture and the deaf community as well as inclusion in a hearing world. 

Every family with a deaf child develops their own gestures to communicate with their child. When the child then enters the inclusive school, he or she learns sign language and soon does not use family gestures anymore.

Over time, this created frustration on the one hand for the children because parents and family members could no longer understand them and on the other hand parents felt excluded from their child’s new life and communication. Therefore, parents asked to learn sign language in order to be able to communicate with their child and to enable them to support their schoolwork.

So, the project created sign language classes for parents in the 23 mainstream schools involved in the project in 13 cities across Côte d’Ivoire.

In Man, a city located 580 km from Abidjan (where ECIS is located), a deaf boy’s mother said, “That day at church, I danced like never before. When that man at the pulpit made the announcement about the registration of children with a disability can now attend local school. I thanked the Lord and I said: this project came just for me. My son will also be able to go to school.”

This programme was presented at the UNESCO Education Forum in Cali, Colombia on 13 September 2019 by Dakou Marie Véronique Bakayoko, Director, Equity and Gender Equality, Ministry of National Education, Technical Education and Vocational Training, Côte d’Ivoire.

CBM Global Advisor for Education and members from Côte d’Ivoire's Ministry of Education at the 2019 UNESCO Education Forum.

[From left to right] YAO Epse BEUGRE Gnamien J. Director, Directorate of Schools, Lycees and Colleges, Ministry of National Education, Technical Education and Vocational Training, Côte d’Ivoire; Sian Tesni, CBM Global Advisor for Education; and Dakou Marie Véronique BAKAYOKO, Director, Equity and Gender Equality, Ministry of National Education, Technical Education and Vocational Training, Côte d’Ivoire at the UNESCO Education Forum, Cali, Columbia in September 2019. Dakou Marie Véronique BAKAYOKO and Sian Tesni shared a plenary presentation related to disability inclusive education and the link between health and education. ©CBM


Other ways CBM supports the deaf community

This year, CBM has supported:

  • partners working to ensure that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can participate in relevant aspects of programme planning, delivery, monitoring and evaluation as part of a disability inclusive development approach; access training opportunities; become involved in national sign language research and development; access educational opportunities from an early age; and access communication support according to their needs and are role models or educators of deaf or hearing learners.
  • the coordination, together with the International Disability Alliance, of the Stakeholder Group of Persons with Disabilities at the UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF) to ensure persons with disabilities are meaningfully included in global sustainable development. Two deaf leaders participated and presented at the HLPF: Juan Angel De Gouveia from Venezuela and Sulayman Abdulmumuni Ujah from Nigeria, whom CBM supported. Additionally, Elizabeth Lockwood (CBM Representative at the United Nations) and Maegan Shanks (instructor at Gallaudet University) facilitated a deaf awareness session at the HLPF, stressing the importance of access to sign language, understanding deaf culture, and the inclusion of deaf and hard of hearing people in all initiatives.
  • deaf leaders in attending the WFD World Congress. Murielle Bertrand (Finance & Human Resources Officer, CBM International) led CBM engagement at this key conference. She was supported by Siân Tesni (Global Advisor for Education, CBM International) and Jen Blyth (Disability Inclusion Advisor, Inclusive Development, CBM Australia). Jill Temo (Fiji Association of the Deaf / Pacific Disability Forum) and Jen Blyth presented on what is needed to strengthen services to meet the needs of deaf persons in the Pacific Island Nations. CBM also enabled three deaf people to attend the conference, including Linh from Vietnam. In Vietnam, the situation for deaf persons is very challenging. Read more about CBM's exchange with deaf leaders in Vietnam here

Find out more and contribute to the conversation on social media this week with the hashtags: #IWDeaf2019 #IDSL2019 #SignLanguagesDay