As Human Rights Day 2012 was being celebrated around the world on 10th December, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's message for the day focused on the rights of all people to have their voices heard. For deaf people, the fight to enjoy the right to have their voices heard remains a special challenge.
This is not because deaf people are incapable of speech—many deaf people can speak and lip read. After all, 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents and grow up in an environment in which the only ways to communicate with hearing people who cannot sign is by gestures, speech and lip reading.
Indeed, deaf Trinbagonians are fed up with being called "dumb"—not only is it hurtful and offensive, it is completely inaccurate. But the first languages of deaf communities are signed, not spoken, and Human Rights for deaf people depends on the recognition of, and respect for, signed languages.
Last Friday, December 7, around 200 deaf and hearing people marched around the Queen's Park Savannah to raise awareness of the urgent need for greater equality for deaf people in Trinidad and Tobago.
At present, deaf Trinbagonians are systematically disadvantaged. In education, despite almost 70 years since the founding of the first school for deaf children, there are still not enough sign language interpreters to provide the essential support required for deaf students in mainstream schools. In health, deaf people are faced with medical professionals who cannot sign and do not provide sign language interpreters, making clear communication of symptoms, diagnoses and prescriptions impossible. In the justice system, the right to fair trial is compromised when there is a lack of interpreters trained in working in legal situations.
At the heart of all of this is language. The World Federation of the Deaf has stated that "full enjoyment of human rights for deaf people is based on the recognition and respect for deaf culture and identity. Everywhere in the world, language creates culture and vice versa." Contrary to popular misconceptions, sign language is not universal.
There are perhaps 600 different signed languages around the world, varying, as spoken languages do, from place to place and culture to culture—it's hardly surprising that deaf Trinbagonians have words for "doubles" and "liming", which are not part of British sign language.
The story of sign language and the development of the deaf community in Trinidad and Tobago is a remarkable one, which deserves to be much more widely known. At a celebration of 50 years of Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language (TTSL), held last week at the University of the West Indies, deaf researcher Azim Kallan described the emergence of TTSL. The language was neither imported from abroad, nor created by hearing people. Rather, it was created by deaf children in the dormitories of the Cascade School for the deaf. The fact that this happened at a time when signing was explicitly banned from the classrooms, serves to illustrate just how vital to deaf communities sign languages are.
At the same event, the Vice-President of the Deaf Empowerment Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago (DEOTT), Shawn Mitchell, discussed the importance of sign languages in the struggle for Human Rights. The president, Bryan Rodrigues, stressed the importance of TTSL to deaf people in the country, and demonstrated differences between this language and American Sign Language (ASL). He recognised that ASL is important too, for communicating with deaf people outside the country, but that this need not and should not be at the expense of TTSL.
Change is slow, but it is happening. It can be seen in the number of people who came out to march and demand equality, in the work of DEOTT and WeCare Deaf Support Network, who organised the march and are working to raise awareness, in the deaf students now enrolled at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, and the tutors employed to teach on the University of the West Indies' Undergraduate Diploma in Caribbean Sign Language Interpreting.
Much more must be done. The Government has signed, but not yet ratified the UN's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and measures must be taken urgently to address the terrible problems in education, health, justice and many other areas where inequality persists. But change cannot just come from the Government. It must come from a cultural shift in all members of society. We must all pay attention to what deaf people are saying.
For example, deaf people in Trinidad and Tobago generally don't like the term 'hearing impaired'. Rather than being defined in terms of an impairment, they are proud to be deaf. The term "hearing impaired" is appropriate for people who lose their hearing later in life, but these people form an entirely different group: they remain in the hearing world, using hearing aids and other assistive devices, and rarely learn to sign. The capitalisation of "deaf" is used to indicate a community of people with a shared history and language.
Above all, if we are serious about recognising the voices of everyone, we must promote, respect, and take pride in different cultures andlanguages, whether signed or spoken, so that when people have something to say, we can listen and understand.
Lecturer in Linguistics,
UWI, St Augustine