Students inside a classroom at the Reverend Muhoro School for the Deaf in Mukurwe- Ini, Kenya, on September 26, 2013.
© 2013 Joana Manuel Poggio/Human Rights Watch

(Sydney) – Deaf children have a right to a quality education, like all other children, in a language and environment that maximizes their potential. In a video released on October 18, 2013, in conjunction with a global conference in Sydney on equality for deaf people, Human Rights Watch shows some of the challenges faced by deaf children and young people, and the opportunities sign language education offers them.

Worldwide, deaf children and young people are often denied an education, including in sign language. There is a lack of teachers well-trained in sign language, and in many cases parents do not know that their children have a right to go to school and that they can learn if only given the opportunity.

“Sign language is critical for deaf people to be able to communicate, express themselves, and learn,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Depriving deaf people of the opportunity to learn sign language can condemn them to devastating isolation.”

Hundreds of deaf people, their families, government officials, and disability experts have gathered in Sydney for a major conference on October 16-18 organized by the World Federation of the Deaf.    

Human Rights Watch documented cases of deaf children and young people in Nepal, China, and northern Uganda who were denied their right to education in sign language. Some deaf children and young people interviewed did not attend school at all. Teachers and parents often have the misconception that deaf children lack the intellectual capacity to learn.

A deaf teacher featured in the video told Human Rights Watch: “Our disability only affects our hearing, not our minds. A deaf child’s mind is as good as a hearing child’s mind.”

The right to education in sign language for deaf people is safeguarded by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Under this treaty, governments have an obligation to facilitate the learning of sign language and to promote the linguistic identity of the deaf community.

In concrete terms, this means employing teachers who are qualified in the national sign language, and training teachers at all levels of education to work with deaf pupils. Central to this approach is empowering deaf children, young people, and parents to help design and carry out education in sign language.

“Without the ability to use sign language on the most basic level, deaf people face significant barriers to being independent,” Barriga said. “Communication skills are fundamental to getting jobs and participating in the communities and family life.”