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COMMITTEE ON THE RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES COMMEMORATES THE INTERNATIONAL DAY OF SIGN LANGUAGES

13 September 2018

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities this afternoon commemorated the International Day of Sign Languages by holding a discussion in which participants stressed that sign languages were not only a right of deaf persons, but as languages used by more than 70 million people, they were also a part of linguistic diversity across the globe.

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the Division of Conference Management, United Nations Office at Geneva, speaking on behalf of the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, Michael Møller, expressed a great pleasure to mark - for the first time - the International Day of Sign Languages at the Palais des Nations.  She said that at the Palais des Nations, genuine multilingualism was promoted through the provision of sign language interpretation in both international sign language, as well as national sign languages during the meetings of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

Walton Webson, Permanent Representative of Antigua and Barbuda to the United Nations, in a video message, stressed that this celebration was a call to action by the deaf and hard of hearing community, to allow its members to express themselves in their language that would bring out the full expression of their thoughts, one step closer to leaving no one behind. 

Giovanna Bianchi, speaking on behalf of the Human Rights Council Taskforce for Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities, said accessibility was too often misunderstood as a suppressing physical barrier.  Accessibility was a much broader issue that included providing interpretation in sign languages, captioning or statements embossed in Braille in any of the six United Nations official languages. 

Adam Abdelmoulah, Director of the Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanisms Division at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, recalled that more than 70 million people communicated in sign languages.  The International Day of Sign Languages recalled the obligations of States to respect their obligations under international human rights law with regard to language rights.

Theresia Degener, Committee Chairperson, said sign language interpretation - like spoken languages interpretation - enabled the Committee to work and fulfil its mandate, not only since it had deaf members in its ranks, but also because sign languages interpreters had become a part of the Committee’s wider family. 
 
The Committee then heard personal testimonies, experiences and key collective goals from a number of organizations and individuals.  Speaking were Joseph Murray, Vice President of the World Federation of the Deaf; Catalina Devandas, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; Laszlo Lovaszy, Committee Expert; and via video Deborah Russell, President of the International Association of Sign Language Interpreters. 

Damjan Tatic, Committee Vice-Chair and moderator of the meeting, concluded by thanking everyone for a fruitful celebration of the International Day of Sign Languages and stressed that the use of sign languages was an issue of accessibility and equality, and it contributed to the diversity enjoyed in the world.

All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.  The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings will be available via the following link: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/.


The Committee will next meet in public on Friday, 21 September to adopt its General Comment N°7 on the participation of persons with disabilities in the implementation and monitoring of the Convention, and to publicly close its twentieth session.


Statements

CORINNE MOMAL-VANIAN, Director of the Division of Conference Management at the United Nations Office at Geneva, spoke on behalf of the Director-General Michael Møller, and expressed a great pleasure to mark - for the first time - the International Day of Sign Languages at the Palais des Nations.  Millions of people used sign languages every day, she said, noting that it was the Convention that had enshrined the principle that sign languages were equal to spoken languages.  At Geneva, such genuine multilingualism was promoted through the provision of sign language interpretation in both international sign language, as well as national sign languages during the meetings of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  “The first sign language interpreters have been recruited for only for a couple of days in 2012, but we have come a long way since”, recalled Ms. Momal-Vanian, noting that the pioneering work of the United Nations at Geneva had become a reference to the rest of the United Nations system for the provision of accessibility services, which was in part possible because it was a home to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

WALTON WEBSON, Permanent Representative of Antigua and Barbuda to the United Nations, in a video message, stressed that the importance of the sign languages could not be understated as a language represented a culture and the voice of free speech of a community.  This celebration was a call to action by the deaf and hard of hearing community, to allow its members to express themselves in their language that would bring out the full expression of their thoughts, one step closer to leaving no one behind.  Mr. Webson then stressed the critical importance of creating further opportunities for training, training children in schools so that sign language could become a common part in their discourse, training a large number of interpreters to increase the opportunities for persons with disabilities in the work place, in social engagements, and within general community and environment. 

GIOVANNA BIANCHI, speaking on behalf of the Human Rights Council Taskforce for Accessibility for persons with disabilities, recalled that the establishment of this Taskforce in 2011 had marked the beginning of the increased accessibility of the Council’s work.  The Taskforce had made a series of recommendations to the Human Rights Council on how to improve accessibility, and had prepared accessibility plan that had been adopted in December 2017.  “Accessibility is too often misunderstood as a suppressing physical barrier”, she said, adding that accessibility was a much broader issue that included providing interpretation in sign languages, captioning or statements embossed in Braille in any of the six United Nations official languages.  Full accessibility also required a cultural change that was now fortunately happening and was long due.

ADAM ABDELMOULA, Director of the Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanisms Division at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, recalled that more than 70 million people communicated in sign languages and for some, sign languages were the primary form of communication.  In many countries, however, sign languages were still not officially recognized and neither were the identities and the culture of the deaf communities around the world.  The International Day of Sign Languages recalled the obligations of States to respect their obligations under the international human rights law with regard to language rights, he recalled, while the United Nations pursued multilingualism as a means of promoting and preserving the diversity of languages and cultures globally, in recognition of the importance of preserving sign languages as part of linguistic and cultural diversity.

THERESIA DEGENER, Committee Chairperson, said that the International Day of Sign Languages was in the spirit and the letter of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, where sign languages were mentioned in four different provisions.  Sign language interpretation - like spoken languages interpretation - enabled the Committee to work and fulfil its mandate, not only since it had deaf members in its ranks, but also because sign languages interpreters had become a part of the Committee’s wider family.  “To celebrate a sign language was to recognize also those who enabled the communication in that language”, concluded the Chair.
 
Personal Testimonies and Experiences

The Committee then heard personal testimonies, experiences and key collective goals from a number of organizations and individuals.

JOSEPH MURRAY, Vice President of the World Federation of the Deaf, emphasized that the number of people from the general public who were learning sign language was expanding rapidly, and that research had shown that a knowledge of sign languages provided educational and cognitive advantages to both hearing and deaf people.  Because of the barriers that deaf children continually faced in their daily lives, the World Federation of the Deaf was working with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and other United Nations human rights bodies, with deaf-led national association members, and human rights defenders around the world, to continue the advancement of sign languages as the fundamental human right.

CATALINA DEVANDAS, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, noted the beauty of sign languages that enriched the entire community, not only the deaf, and emphasized the crucial role of sign languages in the inclusion of deaf people, and empowering them to utilize their full potential and shape their identities.  Naturally, challenges still remained; there were countries that did not recognize the importance of sign languages, and others where sign languages were not used at all.  Deaf people were usually insufficiently represented even within the disability community, and the United Nations offices in the field had never hired sign language interpreters, which sent the wrong picture to the rest of the world.  The International Day of Sign Languages was an opportunity to draw attention on the situation of the deaf community, and to start to change the reality in the field.

LASZLO LOVASZY, Committee Expert, stressed that this International Day was a huge success for the deaf community, which they should use to widely and openly lead in a celebration of their identity and their recognized rights officially and for the first time in history.  “Things have changes since I was a child”, he said, “and fortunately, more and more countries recognized the potential of sign languages as a natural language of deaf persons and encouraged its use”.  States parties to the Convention had to facilitate the learning of sign languages and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community, Mr. Lovaszy stressed, noting the Committee’s commitment to inclusion and dignity of all persons in the celebration, as they continued to advocate for the recognition of sign languages and the promotion of their use in interaction with all State parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
 
DEBORAH RUSSELL, President of the International Association of Sign Language Interpreters, in a video statement, congratulated everyone for today’s celebration and thanked the Committee for its work on making the International Day of Sign Languages come to life.  Ms. Russell urged for greater recognition of national sign languages, since language diversity strengthened the deaf community, and it also led to better education of sign interpreters and their professional training.

In the ensuring discussion, a participant noted that this celebration was a big moment for the deaf community and asked whether the recognition of the national sign language meant future judicial support.  Mr. Murray of the World Federation of the Deaf said that it was a complex issue since the recognition of sign languages was at different levels in different countries.  Legal recognition was more about the status of the language rather that its application, which was as important as the legal recognition.  Another participant drew attention to the vast number of deaf and hard of hearing people in Asia, and emphasized an upcoming great celebration of the International Day of Sign Languages on 23 September in Tokyo, Japan.

Concluding Remarks

DAMJAN TATIĆ, Committee Vice-Chair and session moderator, concluded by thanking everyone for a fruitful celebration of the International Day of Sign Languages and stressed that the use of sign languages was an issue of accessibility and equality, and it contributed to the diversity enjoyed in the world.


For use of the information media; not an official record  

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