International Day of Sign Languages Declared by United Nations

by: David Titmus

The end of the year often is a time to look back on paths traveled and celebrate successes achieved over the last 365 days as well as a time to look ahead to new challenges. To that end, the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) has a lot to celebrate.

For the past two years, the advocacy organization, an international non-governmental group whose goal is the preservation of sign languages and deaf culture, has been reaching out to various governments to drum up interest and support for the creation of a day that recognizes sign languages around the globe.

Earlier this month, their work paid off as the United Nations General Assembly declared September 23, 2018, as “International Day of Sign Languages.”

The resolution, proposed through the Permanent Mission of Antigua and Barbuda to the United Nations, following an original request by WFD, was co-sponsored by 97 United Nations member states and adopted by consensus.

The resolution represents an important milestone in the UN’s international promise “to leave no one behind” and is a significant step in recognizing the objectives and goals of universal inclusion set out in Article 21 of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The article states that governments take appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise their rights to freedom of expression and opinion on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice, including via accessible technologies and communication (such as sign languages, Braille, and other augmentative and alternative forms of communication).

“This resolution recognizes the importance of sign language and services in sign language being available to deaf people as early in life as possible,” said WFD President Colin Allen. “It also emphasizes the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ in terms of working with deaf communities.”

The choice of September 23 commemorates the date that WFD was established in 1951. Additionally, the first International Day of Sign Languages will be celebrated as part of the “International Week of the Deaf,” a global movement of deaf unity and concerted advocacy designed to raise awareness of the issues that deaf people face in their everyday lives.

In other global news, Irish President Michael Higgins this week signed new legislation conferring legal recognition on Irish Sign Language. The bill was passed by the Irish legislature earlier this month, and is now officially designated as a native and independent language.

Irish Sign Language (ISL) is used by 50,000 members of the deaf community and thousands of others to communicate with them. Among other measures, the bill introduces targets for accessible television programs and establishes ISL requirements for users accessing state services and in court proceedings.