#EUsigns of the time
September the 28th is a beautiful day in Brussels. The sun is shining and people are having their lunch outdoors on the Esplanade of the European Parliament. Nothing out of the ordinary, except that it's unusually quiet given how many people there are around me as I walk up to the main entrance of the EP's Altiero Spinelli building.
September the 28th 2016 is a special day, indeed. Hundreds of deaf people and dozens of sign language interpreters from all over Europe and even Japan have gathered in Brussels for a truly unique event: a conference on "Multilingualism and equal rights in the EU: the role of sign languages". And the location could not be more fitting, as this conference takes place in the iconic and beautiful hemicycle of the European Parliament.
Having entered the plenary room, or hemicycle, I am stunned. There are over 600 people in this amazing room, almost 40 of them from outside the European Union.
Terry Reintke MEP: It is an absolutely breathtaking feeling to enter this room and to see so many sign language interpreters. I got goose pimples when I came in.
I am not stunned by the noise. Quite the contrary. The room is almost quiet, apart from the occasional outburst of laughter. Most of the communication is signed. It is certainly not the usual business of this debating chamber and truly a sight to behold. At first, I can't find a place to sit down. The parlamentarians' seats have been divided into blocks for the individual sign languages. In front of every block, there's a sign language interpreter, a second one right beside. They wear black or other dark colours to increase the contrast with their hands' skin tone. And they stand on little podiums. All in the interest of enhancing visibility and understanding by the audience.
Helga Stevens MEP: OK, we're going to start. I would like to say good afternoon, everyone. And of course, I would also like to welcome all of you to this historic conference.
This is Helga Stevens, welcoming the participants of the conference. Actually, the person you hear is her Flemish interpreter, because Helga Stevens uses Flemish sign language.
The sheer numbers are impressive, too: 1 huge room. 31 EU sign languages. 1 non-EU sign language (Japanese). 24 spoken EU languages (including Irish) *Liadh Ní Riada speaking Irish* 145 interpreters. And dozens of MEPs.
The one MEP behind this historic event is Helga Stevens, who we just heard giving her opening remarks. Stevens is a Belgian politician and an MEP for the New Flemish Alliance, which forms part of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the Parliament. Stevens' life so far is quite astonishing: She was born deaf in 1968. She first attended a school for the deaf before graduating from a mainstream school as one of the first Belgian pupils benefiting from inclusion education. During a stint in the United States, she got in touch with deaf advocates. Back in Belgium, she studied law, became a lawyer - and then studied law again on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Berkeley. In parallel to her legal career, she started working in advocacy for the deaf (notably with the European Union of the Deaf) and became actively involved in local and national politics. Helga Stevens has been one of the two signing members of the European Parliament since 2014, together with Hungarian MEP and co-organiser of this conference Adam Kosa.
Vicky Ford MEP: When Helga explained to me she was going to bring a conference of people with hearing disabilities to the European Parliament, I don't think anybody expected such an impressive turnout.
65 MEPs across all political groups sponsored over 430 visitors for them to be able to come to Brussels. And it was also members of the European Parliament who have supported the provision of international sign interpretation and speech-to-text for the live web stream of the event.
It is fitting that the European Parliament would host this conference - it has a long history of supporting the cause of the deaf.
Oliver Pouliot: My name is Oliver Pouliot, I'm one of MEP Stevens' regular interpreters. British, American, Hungarian and Flemish sign language - these are the sign languages of the members, as well as the leaders of European-level NGOs who come to the European Parliament on a regular basis. Today is obviously an exception, and many of you can be proud to represent your sign languages appearing in the EP for the very first time in such large numbers. The reality of the situation has been and still is that there is less support for sign languages compared to spoken languages. Deaf people are not linguistically disabled and therefore, their communication accessibility should not fall under that category [of reasonable accommodation]. Rather, it should fall under the policy of controlled full multilingualism, just as their spoken-language colleagues. Sign and spoken language teams are the future of interpreting in the European Parliament. After decades of resolutions, recognition and run-around, I think we are finally in a position to make some change. And who better to set the example than the European Parliament?
In June 1988, a resolution was approved unanimously falling on the member states to recognises their national sign languages. Back then, only 4 states had done so. As if to underline how little progress was being made, the EP passed another resolution: 10 years later, 1998, but with almost the same demands: recognise sign languages, professionalise sign language interpreting, encourage hearing people to learn sign language for more inclusion, to name just a few. And one of the MEPs was there for the whole time. His name is Richard Howitt.
Richard Howitt MEP: Thank you, Helga. I'm very proud to be here at this conference. Well don to you. As one of the longest-serving members of the Parliament, I was one of the co-signatories to the resolution in 1998 for the official recognition of sign language. And since then, 12 different European countries have done so. I'm deeply proud of that, and of our role in that campaign. Most recently Malta. But Bulgaria and Luxemburg, come on, do it, let's get all of you recognising sign language. In one month's time, I will finish in the EP, I will stand down and not be a member of the EP anymore. There won't be another session in this hemicycle. So this is the last time I will speak in this hemicycle. I just want to remind you: Before I was an MEP, the thing that made me want to be an MEP was that I ran a disability local project with European funding that got British deaf and Dutch deaf people together to learn about each other's sign language. That was the thing that got me into this chamber, and I'm very proud that today's event is one of the last things before I leave.
In 2010, the European Union officially ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That UN convention was a follow-up to the "Decade of disabled persons" from 1981 to 1992. With the active involvement of representatives of the disability community, it was adopted by the General Assembly in 2006 and entered into force in 2008, when the 20th party had signed it. Currently, 166 countries and the European Union have signed the CRPD. That means that the EU institutions now legally HAVE to provide accessibility and equality for disabled citizens.
And that's the big objective: a full recognition of sign languages in every EU member state.
23 states have 1 national sign language, but 4 states have even two: Belgium has a Flemish and a French Belgian sign language. Spain has a Spanish and a Catalan variety. And Finland and Estonia accommodate their Swedish and Russian linguistic minorities respectively with their own sign language. And one member state, Luxemburg, shares its sign language with Germany.
And I could go on: For example, French and American sign language have quite a few commonalities. The story behind it is fascinating, so here it goes, real quick in a nutshell. In the late 1700s, the famous Royal Institute of the Deaf was founded in Paris. It exists to this day to teach young deaf people. One of the institute's teachers back in the day was Laurent Clerc. He was born hearing, but lost his hearing and sense of smell in a fire accident when he was one year old. He was taught at the institute and was such a good student that he was asked to stay on as a teacher. Meanwhile, in 1815, an American called Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet had come to London and then Paris to learn about teaching the deaf out of frustration that the deaf in America had no specialised teaching whatsoever. Gallaudet and Clerc really hit it off. They sailed back to America together in 1816 and used the 52-day voyage to learn from each other. Clerc taught Gallaudet French sign language, Gallaudet taught Clerc English. So despite his firm intention to soon return to his native France, Clerc never did. He and Gallaudet founded the first school for the deaf in Harford, Connecticut and brought deaf education to North America. They brought along a lot of French signs and shaped the development of ASL, American Sign Language.
To give another example from Europe, the Vlaamse Gebarentaal used in Flanders is closer to the Langue des Signes de Belgique Francophone than it is to the Dutch sign language across the border.
Contrary to popular belief, there is not one universal sign language, but rather a huge variety of national sign languages, as we have seen. Each with their own grammar, syntax, and even dialects. In terms of community, we're talking about 1 million sign language users, 51 million hard-of-hearing people and 6500 sign language interpreters in the EU. Depending on the country, the ratio of interpreters and users of sign language can vary between 8:1 and 2500:1. It is obvious that things need to change. Let's finish this special episode of LangFM with an impassioned statement by Yannis Vardakastanis, the President of the European Disability Forum:
Yannis Vardakastanis: Linguistic diversity is a right that must be respected and upheld. The EP has adopted an implementation report on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in July, prepared by Helga Stevens, that contains recommendations for the rights of the disabled. It is an opportunity for the EU to sign up to the UN efforts and to provide a legal framework for fighting against poverty, discrimination and human rights violations among people with disabilities. It is incumbent on the whole EU to implement the Parliament's recommendations. All those rights should be accessible to everyone unconditionally. Accessibility must become a reality for every European citizen. People with disabilities live in difficult times - times of austerity, discrimination and exclusion. The time has come for the EU to open up to people with disabilities, to say "yes", the EU is there for Europeans with disabilities and for everyone else. The EU must bring about a day where you and us, regardless of disabilities, are able to communicate with each other on equal footing. In conclusion: Nothing for us without us.
This has been episode 28 of LangFM, a podcast about languages and the people who live and work with them. More information about this episode and the back catalogue of earlier ones can be found online at http://www.langfm.audio.
Special thanks go to Lauren Harris for live-tweeting the conference and helping me with this episode.
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Thanks for listening and talk to you soon - on LangFM.
Helga Stevens: There are still people chatting, please stop them. But that's so typical of deaf culture. Maybe we should just turn the lights on and off?