Sign Language Is Key to Real Inclusion


Imagine that you and your loved ones are at risk during a national emergency. The government discloses information that could have a great impact on your safety, but you cannot access it because it was not made available to you.

Many deaf people find themselves in this situation during the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, when important information was broadcast on television, it was often not made available in sign language. And safety measures like wearing face masks and observing social distancing made communication difficult. With schools around the world closed due to the pandemic, distance learning alternatives often did not meet the needs of children using sign language, leaving them isolated and excluded from school for long periods of time.

But even without a prolonged crisis, Human Rights Watch research has found that deaf and hard of hearing people face numerous barriers to accessing information and basic services. In Russia, Iran, Zambia and other countries, the shortage of sign language interpreters and information in accessible formats prevents deaf people from accessing health care. “Whenever I go to a hospital without someone interpreting for me, they write on a piece of paper that I should come back and bring someone with me,” says a hearing-impaired woman from Gaza. “That experience made me feel less like a person.”

Our research in China, Iran, Kyrgyzstan and Nepal has found that deaf children face barriers to accessing education in sign language, while in many other countries, including India and Peru, communication barriers prevent access to public services.

“Sign language should be respected like any other language. It is our fundamental right and enables us to communicate and be equal members of our communities, ”said Jenny Nilsson, a member of the Human Rights Watch Advisory Committee on Disability Rights and ombudsman for children with disabilities in Sweden.

Today we are celebrating International Sign Language Day under the motto “We sign for human rights”. As governments continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and plan for “better reconstruction,” they should ensure that the human rights of deaf and hard of hearing people are respected and included in society equally and meaningfully.