International Day of Sign Languages

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According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are approximately 72 million deaf people worldwide. More than 80% of them live in developing countries and collectively use more than 300 different sign languages. Each country generally has its own native sign language, and some have more than one. Some sign languages have obtained some form of legal recognition. Wherever communities of deaf people exist, sign languages have developed as useful means of communication, and they form the core of local deaf cultures. Although signing is used primarily by the deaf and hard of hearing, it is also used by hearing individuals, such as those unable to physically speak, those who have trouble with spoken language due to a disability or condition, augmentative and alternative communication, or those with deaf family members, such as children of deaf adults.

Sign languages, also known as signed languages are languages that use the visual-manual modality to convey meaning. Sign languages are expressed through manual articulations in combination with non-manual elements. Sign languages are full-fledged natural languages with their own grammar and lexicon. Sign languages are not universal and they are not mutually intelligible with each other, although there are also striking similarities among sign languages. There is also an international sign language, which is used by deaf people in international meetings and informally when travelling and socializing. It is considered a pidgin form of sign language that is not as complex as natural sign languages and has a limited lexicon.

Linguists consider both spoken and signed communication to be types of natural language, meaning that both emerged through an abstract, protracted aging process and evolved over time without meticulous planning. Sign language should not be confused with body language, a type of nonverbal communication. Linguists distinguish natural sign languages from other systems that are precursors to them or obtained from them, such as invented manual codes for spoken languages, home sign, baby sign, and signs learned by non-human primates.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises and promotes the use of sign languages and makes clear that sign languages are equal in status to spoken languages and obligates states parties to facilitate the learning of sign language and promote the linguistic identity of the deaf community.

The proposal for the International Sign Day came from the World Federation of the Deaf or WFD, a federation of 135 national associations of deaf people, representing approximately 70 million deaf people’s human rights worldwide. So the International Day of Sign Languages or IDSL is celebrated annually across the world on 23 September every year along with International Week of the Deaf to raise awareness of the importance of sign language in the full realisation of the human rights of those who are deaf. September 23 was chosen because it was the day the World Federation of the Deaf was established in 1951 whose main goal is the preservation of sign languages and deaf culture as pre-requisites to the realisation of the human rights of deaf people.

The resolution establishing the day acknowledges that early access to sign language and services in sign language, including quality education available in sign language, is vital to the growth and development of the deaf individual and critical to the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals. It recognizes the importance of preserving sign languages as part of linguistic and cultural diversity. It also emphasizes the principle of “nothing about us without us” in terms of working with deaf communities.

The International Day of Sign Languages was first celebrated in 2018 as part of the International Week of the Deaf while the International Week of the Deaf was first celebrated in September 1958 and has since evolved into a global movement of deaf unity and concerted advocacy to raise awareness of the issues deaf people face in their everyday lives. The day plays an important role in preserving the rights of the deaf community and seeks to maintain the status of sign languages as playing an intrinsic role in the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity, emphasising the importance of good education in sign language, as it is vital to the growth and development of deaf individuals.

The Theme for the International Day of Sign Languages 2021 is We Sign for Human Rights. The other daily themes for the International Week of the Deaf People are Cherishing Deaf History on 20 September, Sustainable Deaf Leadership on 21 September, Sign languages for All Deaf Learners on 22 September, Intersectional Deaf Communities on 24 September, Deaf Culture and Arts on 25 September and Human Rights in Times of Crisis on 26 September.

I’ve been interested in learning the sign language and maybe this day will spur me to learn it. There are many sign languages across the world and I think the American Sign Language or ASL is probably the most commonly used in the world. Singapore uses the Singapore Sign Language or SgSL which was influenced by the Shanghainese Sign Language, American Sign Language, Signing Exact English and locally developed signs. India, on the other hand uses the Indian Sign Language or ISL, said to be influenced by the American Sign Language.

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