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Without Sign Language, Deaf People Are Not Equal

Governments Should Ensure Equal Access to Information and Services

The names of the months in French and sign language are depicted inside a classroom for deaf students in Leveque, a community where a group of deaf people relocated after the 2010 earthquake in Cabaret, Haiti, April 17. 2016. © 2016 AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery

We often take for granted our ability to interact with others in our own language. But significant barriers to communicating in sign language are depriving many deaf people of enjoying even these basic interactions.

More than 70 million deaf people around the world use sign languages to communicate. Sign language allows them to learn, work, access services, and be included in their communities. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities calls on states to accept, facilitate, and promote the use of sign languages with the goal to ensure that people with disabilities can enjoy their rights on an equal basis with others.

But Human Rights Watch research around the world finds deaf people often struggle to access basic services. In India, Iran, and Russia, lack of sign language interpreters and information in accessible formats hampers access to public services and courts. In these and other countries, communication barriers also impede access to health care for deaf people. In one case, Shahla, a deaf woman in Iran, told us she can’t visit the gynecologist unless her mother accompanies her. “But this is very embarrassing to share everything when my mom is there. So it’s better not to go,” she says.

We have documented cases of deaf children in Nepal, China, and northern Uganda who were denied their right to education in sign language. In Brazil, we found many deaf people living in institutions spend their lives without being able to meaningfully communicate because they were never taught how to sign.

Everyone should be able to access information equally. Human Rights Watch offers multiple formats to increase accessibility of more of our products, including videos in sign language, closed captioning, and reports in easy-to-read format.

On this International Day of Sign Languages, governments should remember their obligation to ensure deaf people are able to access schools, jobs, medical treatment, and other services, and fully support their equal inclusion in society.

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