‘Sign language is a dance with words, to be enjoyed from Babyhood through Childhood to Adulthood.’
~ Marilyn Daniels
As beautifully quoted here, sign languages are a system of communication which uses visual gestures and signs, used when spoken communication is impossible or not desirable. We humans have been communicating with the help of signs much before we did with our speech. It may be coarsely expressed as mere grimaces, nodding of head, pointing with fingers or with expressive nuanced combination of coded manual signals along with facial expressions. Daily, millions of people worldwide communicate through sign language wherever vocal communication is impossible. Sign language bridges the gap between the speakers of mutually unintelligible languages or when one or more communicators is incapable of hearing/speaking.
People who have forsworn speech either due to religious reasons or for the reasons of humility also resort to sign language. Most benefited with sign languages are the 70 million+ deaf people worldwide, who use more than 300 sign languages to communicate with the world and lead an easy life.
The Birth of Sign Language
In many cultures, it was a common notion that the deaf were ineducable. Only the rich and wealthy were able to afford teachers for themselves who as well just tried by their own means. There was no coded sign language by the 18th century. In the mid-18th century, a french-man and a teacher for poor deaf children Charles-Michel, Abbé-De-l’Epée, created a system that helped in spelling out French words and expressing complex concepts with simple signs.
This system became the basis of development for French Sign Language(FSL), American Sign Language(ASL) and many other national sign languages, most of which are still in practice. Later, American physicist R. Orin Cornett successfully employed hand signs representing sounds only, used with lip reading. It has now been adapted to more than 40 national languages.
The International Day of Sign Languages
The UN decided to recognize 23rd of September as ‘International Day of Sign Languages’ every year, in order to raise awareness of the importance of sign languages in cognizance of the human rights; of people who are deaf. The choice of 23rd September represents the establishment of ‘World Federation of the Deaf (WFD)’, with 135 national associations of deaf people.
Celebration of this day is vital for the development and growth of deaf people and to strengthen them; stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other people. UN plans on deploying sign language at all places and providing other services in sign language like education and entertainment for deaf individuals as early access as possible. The first International Day of Sign Languages was observed on 23rd September, 2018, with the theme “With Sign Language, Everyone is Included!” and has since evolved into a movement of deaf-unity and to raise awareness of the issues deaf people have to face in their daily lives.
People voluntarily join in and try to put themselves in their shoes in order to understand how to behave more empathetically, building a better inclusive, accepting, open-minded and humane society.
What the future looks like…
As stated by the UN Secretary-General Mr. António Gutteres, “The United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy, launched last year, aims to strengthen our efforts to ensure the meaningful participation and full inclusion of people with disabilities in all that we do, including in times of crisis. That is the only way to fulfill the central promise of the 2030 Agenda – to leave no one behind.” The International Day of Sign Languages is an unique opportunity to support and protect the linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all deaf people and other sign language users. The UN and the member states have pledged to create an inclusive environment for the people with disability and endeavoring to provide them with a strong voice of their own. Celebrating and commemorating ‘International Day for Sign Language’ will further strengthen the agenda to create an equal world for everybody despite any obstacles people have in their lives. Nonetheless these words give the essence of the perspective we all must have to strengthen our society.
“Kindness is a language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”