Buttering their bread on both sides?
The recognition of sign languages and the aspirations of deaf communities
In the past two decades, a wave of campaigns to recognise sign languages have taken place in numerous countries. These campaigns sought official recognition of national sign languages, with the aim of enhancing signers’ social mobility and protecting the vitality of sign languages. These activities differ from a long history of sign language planning from a ‘language as a problem’ approach largely used by educators and policymakers to date. However, the instrumental rights and social mobility obtained as a result have thus far been limited with educational linguistic and language acquisition rights especially lacking. This article identifies two reasons for this situation. First, a view of Sign Language Peoples (SLPs) from a medical perspective has led to confusion about the meaning of linguistic rights for them and led governments to treat sign language planning differently than that for spoken languages. Furthermore, SLPs political participation is hindered by recognition being offered by governments without substantial commitments to financial resources, changes in government practices or greater inclusion of sign languages in public life. One exception to this trend are sign language planning bodies, but even these face challenges in the implementation phase. Going forward, we argue that sign language recognition legislation should centre on deaf communities’ concerns regarding sign language vitality. In addition to a need to ensure acquisition for deaf signers, we contend that while the expansion of hearing (and deaf) new signers can be interpreted in terms of language endangerment it can also be seen as strengthening sign languages’ vitality.
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