International Day of Sign Languages

23rd September is the United Nations official ‘International day of Sign Languages’, raising awareness of the importance of sign languages and realisation of the human rights of approximately 72 million deaf people worldwide.

The ability to communicate is an important part of belonging, of interacting with friends, family and others, and being able to find out things and have our say. In Wales today, approximately 575,000 people experience some form of hearing loss. That is more than the total population of Cardiff and Swansea combined!

Many use sign languages, with the British Sign Language (BSL) being the preferred language of many within the Welsh deaf community. BSL has its own grammatical structure and syntax. The Welsh Government recognised BSL as a language in its own right in 2004. There are an estimated 7,200 people in Wales who use BSL at home. Many more interpreters, translators, teachers etc. can use BSL.

UNCRC rights 

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child contains several articles that are relevant to deaf children and young people in Wales and around the world.

  • Article 2 says that all children (everyone under 18 years old) have rights, and that they should not be discriminated against on any grounds – including language and disability – in the realisation of their rights.
  • Article 13, outlines freedom of expression, and explains that children should usually be able to seek, access and share information of all kinds in the way they choose.There are some restrictions on this to make sure that you don’t get or share information that is damaging to you or to other people.
  • Article 23 gives disabled children and young people the right to enjoy a full and decent life, where their dignity is assured, their self-reliance promoted, and their active participation in the community facilitated.
  • Article 29 outlines that the purpose of education is to develop the personality, talents and mental and physical abilities of all children to their fullest potential.
  • Article 30 states that children should not be denied the right to use their language.

These rights complement the rights contained within other international treaties, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the United Kingdom is a signatory.

Since the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, there has been considerable effort undertaken to strengthen child rights within Wales.

In 2001, the office of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales was created. The Children’s Commissioner is responsible for promoting child rights, listening to children and finding out what is important to them, advising children and influencing government.

In 2011, the Rights of Children and Young Persons Measure placed a duty on members of the Welsh Government to consider how changes to the law affect children and their rights.

Other Laws supporting deaf children and young people in Wales

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against people in respect of their disabilities in relation to employment, the provision of goods and services, education, and transport. Employers and service providers also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments in order to overcome barriers experienced by disabled people. If you are deaf or have a hearing impairment, this law means you might expect to be taught by someone who can sign or that you would be provided support in BSL when you want to use other public services.

The Welsh Government has sought to improve services that deaf children can receive, including:

Introducing standards and guides within the health service, setting out the standard of service that people with hearing loss should expect when they use the NHS or any part of it.

The Additional Learning Need and Education Tribunal Act aims to improve the support provided to children with additional needs, ensuring that all children are supported more effectively.

The Social Services and Well-being Act states that the communication needs of individuals receiving support should be recorded to ensure their needs can be met.

The Well-being of Future Generations Act places a responsibility on public bodies to set and work towards a series of objectives contributing to the seven well-being goals set by Welsh Government. One of these goals is the creation of a more equal Wales, one that enables people of all backgrounds and circumstances to fulfil their potential and participate fully in community life.

Room for Improvement 

Despite the action taken, many deaf children and their families in Wales still face barriers, including the high cost of BSL lessons, the inconsistency in qualified support for children to use BSL in schools, and difficulty accessing information and support across a wide range of services in BSL.

In 2015, DEFFO Cymru, a forum for young deaf people in Wales, created a petition calling for improved access to education and other services for children who use BSL. This was looked into by the Petitions Committee, with their findings debated by the National Assembly in 2019, where the Education Minister accepted three out of the four recommendations, committing to undertake a review of the availability of BSL classes and explore the development of a national charter for delivery of services for deaf children, young people and their families.

The ability to communicate is important, recognised in international treaties and national laws. Wales has come a long way in ensuring the rights of children who use sign languages are able to enjoy their rights, however there is room for improvement.

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