The right to a language

By: Johnny Baltzersen, CICED 

Last week saw a lot of focus on deaf people and sign language around the world. Also in Tanzania. September 23rd was the UN’s International Sign Language Day, and the day heralded a week of attention to the rights and needs of deaf people.

Sign language is obviously fundamental to deaf people’s communication with the outside world. Sign language is the deaf’s way out of illiteracy. Without sign language, no education, no job, no money.

Out of Tanzania’s population of around 57 million, approximately 900,000 are deaf or hard of hearing. They are among the poorest in the country.

‘We are written off from birth, we are considered stupid and not susceptible to education. Schools have far too few sign language interpreters, making it almost impossible for deaf children to learn. The majority end up isolated, lonely, unable to communicate and trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty,’ says Dickson Mveyange, Secretary General of CHAVITA (Tanzania Association of the Deaf) on the occasion of International Week of the Deaf.

Dickson Mveyange points out that over half of all young deaf people are functionally illiterate. 75% of deaf students do not pass the O-Level Secondary School Certificate, the equivalent of the primary school leaving certificate. Among non-deaf students, just under 1% fail.
The shortage of qualified sign language interpreters is massive. They are missing in schools, workplaces and educational institutions. And in public administrations.

The shortcomings are first and foremost a question of money. Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world. But, even if more money were available, even if more sign language interpreters could be trained, there are other hurdles to better communication and education for the deaf community.

Dickson Mveyange highlights that there is no standardized sign language in Tanzania. Missionaries and volunteer organizations have introduced various sign languages over the years.

‘During my travels around the country, I have come across eight different sign languages’, says Dickson Mveyange. ‘Added to this is Tanzania’s de facto trilingual situation. One language is spoken at home, Swahili is taught in primary school and English is spoken in secondary school. It’s a real challenge for all students and especially for the deaf’.

On the occasion of the International Week of the Deaf, CHAVITA emphasizes the need for sign language standardization as one of the prerequisites to boost the training and certification of more sign language interpreters and the teaching of deaf people in one recognized sign language. Help is on the way in the form of assistance from DFID (Department for International Development – UK, ed.)

Recognition of sign language

Standardizing sign language is a huge challenge, especially when you have to deal with eight different traditions and methods.

On top of this comes the definitive recognition of sign language as a ‘language’ and not just a technical aid. Deafness and sign language are largely taboo. In fact, it wasn’t until 2017 that the Tanzanian government recognized sign language as a language of instruction for the deaf.

‘Sign language recognized as a language’ was the focus of CICED’s week-long workshop with CHAVITA and TASLI (the sign language interpreters’ association) this summer in Dar es Salaam.

CHAVITA, TASLI and CICED are now embarking on a new project that will aim to have sign language recognized as the first language of the deaf and with rights equal to other official languages. This will require a variety of activities and campaigns. Lots of advocacy. All parties are thinking.

We hope to get started next summer. And we’re excited to share our work along the way.

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