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(New York) ­ – Access to sign language, including in education and public services, is critical for the human rights of deaf people, Human Rights Watch said today. On the first International Day of Sign Languages, Human Rights Watch is trying to make its work more accessible to deaf communities by translating its publications into sign language, and making them available through videos.

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed September 23, 2018 as the first International Day of Sign Languages, to raise public awareness of sign languages and their vital importance to fundamental rights. This is a symbolic victory for deaf communities worldwide, commended by the World Federation of the Deaf and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“For deaf people, access to sign language is key to breaking down communication barriers and participating in society just like anyone else,” said Lea Labaki, junior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The right of deaf people to access schools, medical treatment or courts hinges on their opportunity to use their own language.”

On September 23 and 24, Human Rights Watch publications will be made accessible in sign language to promote the inclusion of deaf people and raise awareness of their rights. This will include certain news releases, multimedia and key parts of  the  website. This initiative also recognizes the importance of informing deaf communities about human rights and ensuring they have access to global news. Human Rights Watch is committed to making  its work accessible for everyone with disabilities, for example through sign language and easy-to-read formats for Human Rights Watch  materials. 

Realizing the rights of deaf people starts with ensuring that deaf children have access to education in sign language. Deaf children have a right to a quality education, like all other children, in a language and environment that maximizes their potential. 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 given the right support.

Lack of awareness of sign language also means that deaf people struggle to access public services, including the services mandated to assist them. A deaf woman in Iran told Human Rights Watch that when she visited the State Welfare Organization to get a reference for genetic counseling before having a baby, she faced what she described as “insulting and heartbreaking behavior” from a social worker: “The lady working there literally got mad at me. I’ll never forget that day. I tried to talk to her by writing on a piece of paper, but she started shouting, and I could tell she was insulting me. I cried so much.”

In Russia, Iran, Zambia and Uganda, Human Rights Watch documented that communications barriers  interfered with deaf people’s right to health, starting with the difficulty in getting health information in an accessible format. In addition, when medical staff rely on family members or friends to communicate effectively with deaf people, this affects their right to privacy.

The consequences can be dramatic. In South Africa,  a deaf gay man went for an HIV test,  but the clinic staff could not communicate with him in sign language, he told Human Rights Watch. The doctor completed a blood test, showed him a piece of paper that said, “YOU ARE HIV POSITIVE,” and then asked him to leave. He did not receive any counseling or support in a language he understood.

A deaf woman in Uganda said that she could not communicate with her nurses effectively while giving birth. The woman was not aware that she was having twins and stopped pushing after the birth of the first child. “[The nurse] was very rude to me, and she didn’t know sign language,” the woman said. “She couldn’t even tell me to push. She wasn’t guiding me. One of my children died.”

Inaccessible health care is just one of the hurdles faced by deaf women who have experienced violence. In India, Human Rights Watch found that deaf women face high risk of sexual violence. They may not be able to call for help or easily communicate abuse, or may be more vulnerable to attacks simply due to the lack of ability to hear what is happening in their surroundings. Deaf victims of violence also struggle to navigate the services to support survivors of sexual abuse and as well as the judicial system.

In consultation with deaf and hard of hearing people and organizations representing them, governments should provide access to professional sign language interpretation in using public services, such as health care, education or the justice system.

In the prison system, deaf offenders also have a right to reasonable accommodations to meet their needs. In Australia, out of the 14 prisons visited by Human Rights Watch, only 3 had proper provisions for deaf prisoners to communicate with their families, over video calls. The communication barriers lead to misunderstandings with staff and feelings of isolation among prisoners, and undermine the ability to maintain family ties that will help prisoners reintegrate into the community after their release.

In times of conflict, displacement, and other humanitarian emergencies, the barriers faced by deaf people are compounded. Deaf people who manage to flee violence and find refuge in displacement camps are isolated and have limited access to aid. A 24-year-old deaf man from Syria who was in a camp near Thessaloniki, Greece said he rarely left this tent for months because he did not have hearing aids, which were damaged on his journey to Greece. Many aid groups need to do more to address the needs of deaf people and ensure that information and services are available in sign language.

“Worldwide, the dearth of information in sign languages marginalizes deaf people and hinders their access to services,” Labaki said. “Making human rights news accessible in sign language is part of a much-needed global effort to give people who are deaf the access to community life and services that many other people take for granted.”  


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