Celebrating sign language
For deaf children, sign language is a vital means of communication and is most often their first language. How can we tackle the barriers preventing these children from learning sign language?
October 25, 2018 by Joanna Clark, Deaf Child Worldwide|
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School in West Bangal.
CREDIT: Deaf Child Worldwide

Last month, hundreds of deaf organizations came together to celebrate the rich and varied nature of sign language around the world. The International Week of the Deaf (IWDeaf) is an initiative of the World Federation of the Deaf and was first launched in 1958. It’s a week we’ve looked forward to and celebrated since its inception.

This year on September 23, the UN officially recognized an International Day of Sign Languages, which was celebrated for the first time as part of the International Week of the Deaf. To mark these celebrations we have produced a detailed guide for organizations large and small who work with deaf children in developing countries.

For deaf children, sign language is crucial

Language and communication are vital in every-day life. They are crucial in allowing us to develop social and emotional well-being as well as to negotiate and learn. It is essential to have a good command of a first language in order to be able to learn to read and write.

This language can be spoken or signed, and for the vast majority of the deaf children that Deaf Child Worldwide works with in developing countries, sign language is a vital means of communication and is most often their first language.

Just as with spoken languages, different countries have their own distinct and unique forms of sign language. For millions of deaf children, sign language is crucial for communication, for being able to make friends, for learning at school, and for telling their friends and family how their day went. It is an essential part of life.

Not having a fluent language can have devastating results. Deaf children fall behind at school as they can’t understand their teacher. They struggle to find a job because of their lack of education. This is completely unacceptable when we know that given the right support, deaf children can achieve as well as their hearing peers.

Challenges to accessing and using sign languages

Across the globe access to sign language varies massively. But from our work, we know that despite the linguistic differences, deaf children who use sign language face many common challenges, not least of all barriers to communication because teachers, family members and friends lack the relevant sign language and communication knowledge and skills.

Our recent research in Kenya revealed that many deaf children have significant challenges learning to communicate and in some cases were delayed by as much as ten years in their language development.

We also found that teachers are confused about how to support children who use Kenyan Sign Language, and aren’t given the training or support they need to communicate with deaf children in the classroom.

In Bangladesh, we’ve worked with partner NGOs to set up early intervention centers which provide Bangla Sign Language lessons and help children to develop basic literacy skills. The centers create a steady foundation so these children are in a position to get a good education when they move up to primary school.

In Latin America, all too often the parents we work with don’t have access to information on how to support and communicate with their deaf children. The parent groups we work with help to combat this, by giving parents a place to share their experiences, advice, concerns and questions and to learn some basic sign language. 

 

Kinango School for the Deaf, Kenya. Credit: Deaf Child Worldwide
Kinango School for the Deaf, Kenya.
CREDIT: Deaf Child Worldwide

Continuing to advocate for deaf children everywhere

Support for deaf children needs to improve in every country. The work we do in the UK shows that deaf children and their families still often struggle to get the support and services that are their right. Education support is being cut back, specialist teachers for deaf children are being lost, and we are only recently making progress with the government introducing opportunities for deaf children to learn British Sign Language at school.

The global picture for deaf children is challenging, but it doesn’t mean that the barriers are insurmountable. By working with other passionate, dedicated and innovative NGOs, we can help make sure more deaf children have proper access to the support they need, when they need it, so that they can reach their full potential.

It was exciting to see so many charities coming together last month for the first ever International Day of Sign Languages. In that same spirit, we need NGOs and governments around the globe to work together and tackle the barriers that prevent deaf children from learning language, signed or spoken, and to support them to get the best possible education.

Deaf children have limitless potential and with the right support there is no stopping them. We need to help them achieve everything we know they can every single day of the year.

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South Asia | Sub-Saharan Africa: Kenya

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Our medical mission focuses on disability inclusion public health targeting the Deaf & Hard of Hearing Sign Language population.

I’m a pharmacist and professor in Deaf education.

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