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The recognition of sign languages as official languages is one of the major concerns of many Deaf communities all over the world. Luckily, in many countries the fight reached the goal and sign languages got some degree of recognition, promotion and support at different levels of the social and civil life. There is no a standard pathway in which such a recognition can be legally included within national legal frameworks. While in some countries the national sign language is an official state language, in others is a minority language, and somewhere else has a protected status in certain areas, such as education or access to public services. The recognition can be set within the constitutional law, special laws, or other kinds of local or national decrees and regulative norms.
The European Union of the Deaf, the Brussels-based federation of associations of the Deaf, has recently published a detailed report on the varied legal statuses that sign languages have in the continent. The volume, edited by Mark Wheatley and Annika Pabsch, is titled “Sign Language legislation in the European Union” and consists of two sections. The first section is a summary for each country member of the Union, with the description of the status of sign language in that country. In the second section, in the form of an appendix, are full reported in the original language the laws and the legal orders that deal with the topic. The picture that emerges is of a continent that, despite its diversity, has mostly opted for forms of recognition of sign languages as the language of a minority of the population.
We can group European countries in three categories. There are three countries that mention and recognize sign language in their Constitutions: Austria, Finland and Portugal. Then there are the countries, and they are the majority, which have specific laws for the recognition of sign language: Belgium (two languages: Wallonia Sign Language and Flemish Sign Language, with two different legislative acts), Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain (two languages: Spanish Sign Language and Catalan Sign Language), Sweden and Hungary. Then there are the countries where there is no official recognition, although it is allowed and guaranteed a certain level of use by other legislative acts: Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Bulgaria.
As highlighted by the report published by the European Union of the Deaf, in Italy there is no official recognition of Italian Sign Language (LIS) at national level. Nevertheless, some regions officially recognize LIS, albeit with different nuances: Abruzzo, Calabria, Campania, Piemonte, Sicilia and Valle d’Aosta approved Regional Laws. All these local authorities, plus some municipalities and provinces, have issued acts of recognition and promotion of sign language in their areas of competence. Moreover, in Italy, a number of laws and administrative regulations mention sign language and ensure the right of its use, even in the absence of formal national recognition.
In Italy there is no official recognition of Italian Sign Language (LIS) at national level.
One of the most important areas expressly addressed by law is the use in universities and education in general. The Italian disability act (Law n.104/1992), declares for example the right for deaf students enrolled in university to benefit from sign language interpreting services during lectures. Furthermore, they have the right to be assisted by a sign language interpreter during examinations and during the final discussion of their thesis. Similar rights are also guaranteed in relation to other moments of the civil life: deaf individuals are entitled to receive support from an interpreter during selection processes to civil servant positions, driving licence examinations, in the lawcourt, and in the employment offices. Nevertheless, the availability of interpreters in other public services, such as hospitals and social services, is not well structured and mostly depends on the sensitivity of local managers. Bilingual education is allowed in schools, when required by families, and sign language can be a subject in universities: there are LIS courses in the universities of Milan, Rome, Venice, Bologna, Parma and Brescia.
We can therefore conclude that in Italy there is a certain degree of unofficial recognition of sign language, which is accepted and used in various fields, although in an incoherent, partial and incomplete way. What is seriously missing is a specific public and official recognition of LIS as a language, paving the way for a cultural revolution in the ideas and prejudices that society has about sign language and the Deaf community.
What is seriously missing is a specific public and official recognition of LIS as a language, paving the way for a cultural revolution in the ideas and prejudices that society has about sign language and the Deaf community.
2014 has seen a new wave of claims and protests by the Italian Deaf community, culminating in a national event that was held in Rome, in front of the Parliament, on November 20h. The demonstration was organized by the most important Italian Deaf association, ENS (Ente Nazionale Sordi), which has always fought for the recognition of LIS at a national level, and gathered more than 7000 people from every region of the peninsula. The event was also joined by several authorities: Giuseppe Petrucci, ENS National President, Helga Stevens, deaf member of the European Parliament, Humberto Insolera, vice president of the European Union of the Deaf, and several Italian politicians belonging to different parties.
However, symbolic recognition is no guarantee for the enforceability of the rights, for the effective improvement of Deaf people’s lives, and for the strength and health of sign language. If a legislative act will provide legal recognition to sign language without explaining the concrete consequences and implications, the process will remain incomplete. A recognition act should be followed by an extensive legislation related to Deaf education, free sign language classes for parents of Deaf children involved in bilingual school, wider use in the media and in every public event, and bigger support to Deaf studies research centers, including a special attention for the involvement of Deaf researchers.
We need a law that clearly defines LIS as a language, and not just a tool of inclusion. We must help politics to operate a cultural shift from the paradigm of disability to the notion of linguistic minority. This is a critical step in my opinion. We must ask to recognize LIS for what it is: much more than an aid, much more than a specific language for a class of “disadvantaged” persons, much more than an exotic communicative tool. LIS is a language, the natural language of a part of the Italian population: it can and must be freely chosen as the first language by those who wish, deaf or hearing it doesn’t matter. Additionally, space and resources must be invested in the study, research, promotion and use of LIS, and it must be treated like all other (majority or minority – and we have many) languages that we find all over Italy and that are already enjoying protection and recognition. In other words, quoting Sarah Batterbury, sign languages should be recognized and supported not merely as an accommodation for the disabled, but as the communication medium of language communities.
We need a cultural shift from the paradigm of disability to the notion of linguistic minority. Sign languages should be recognized and supported not merely as an accommodation for the disabled, but as the communication medium of language communities.
[Head photo: Elena Boille, Internazionale]
Enrico Dolza is Director of the Turin Institute for the Deaf (Italy). He has been working for many years in the fields of Deaf Education and sign language linguistics, collaborating with an extensive network of Italian and foreign institutions, universities and associations. Traveler and bookaholic, in his wanderings he had the good fate to meet many interesting and unconventional people, which led him to be an admirer of values such as independence of thought and action, and attention and enhancement of differences of every individual.