Sign Language Planning: individual rights to group rights

I agreed to stand in for a speaker the week before last at the recent Applied Sign Linguistics conference at Bristol University and that gave me a good opportunity to bring together my own research and thinking on citizenship, language planning and minority group rights.

I refer to language planning in the status sense: i.e. raising the status of a language in society.  Language planning and minority group rights have been discussed by, amongst others, Stephen May, Gabrielle Hogun-Brun and Bernard Spolksy, who are all experts in this field.  All three recognise and include sign languages in their work.

The key finding of my research on citizenship was, unsurprisingly, depressing.  Deaf citizens did not feel they were valued as citizens by all sections of civil, political and social society.  It wasn’t that Deaf people did not feel citizens in any respect at all, they clearly were and did, but it was a ‘thin’ citizenship, rather than a ‘thick’ one that they experienced.  They felt passive rather than active citizens, not in and by themselves, that was how they felt perceived by majority society; it was empirical research evidence.

My thesis presents compelling evidence, but I paraphrase the marxist maxim: ‘you’ve interpreted the world, how are you going to change it?’  I wanted to look at the concept of group rights in my PhD in that regard; my supervisors, rightly and wisely, suggested that to do so would be to take on too vast a project.

Leverhulme and the University of Bristol have presented me with an opportunity to undertake a small scale post-doc research project on group rights, in far more depth than I could give it justice in my PhD.  What I am finding so far is challenging stuff; still ongoing.

At the Applied Sign Linguistics conference, however, I raised the point of moving on from sign language ‘recognition’ (read ‘acknowledgment’) to sign language acts, or language planning; ostensibly to protect, raise and strengthen the status of sign language in society.  Such moves were long ago suggested by political activists and academic thinkers prior to the 2003 British Sign Language (UK) ‘recognition’ statement, who have always recognised the importance of the statement but at the same time consistently and continuously maintained it never went far enough. It is far more important than that though: language acts are as much about protecting language from demise, something that several thousand spoken languages are at risk of.  Skutnabb-Kangas is regularly warning the world that spoken languages are already experiencing genocide.

In the UK, the next step from language ‘recognition’ (read ‘acknowledgment’) unofficially at least, might be a BSL Act.

However, the question raised is : what might that mean in practice?  Any presentation to governments to introduce Acts carries with it the assumption that these will apply to individuals. Our society, after all, is liberal democratic, where the will of the individual is held as paramount; there might be some form of exemptions, but the individual right (usually of the individual parents) will always trump the group right.

Now, it’s not being suggested that there is anything objectionable to individual rights; but Acts, arguably, need to be powered by board(s) of (liberal) enforcers, not simply ‘advised’ by them.  Empowering such a group or board is what makes a group right i.e. that group becomes self-determining since it holds the destiny of the rights of the group in its own hands, and not to a random government appointed board that, with all due respect, are not the best guarantors or protectors of the group (since they have other interests in mind). Group rights can be upheld to protect individual rights, providing such rights are promoted to protect the group from external protections (against the demise of sign language for example), and not to impose internal restrictions (enforcing members of a group to forgo a liberal right).

The key theorist I am referring to here is Will Kymlicka, who has come under some criticism, but whose arguments that minority group rights are key to liberalism, and are not in opposition to it, is a powerful one.  After all, citizenship is already a restrictive practice (not all people of a nation can claim citizenship of a country automatically, for example), and group rights are already favourable to dominant national languages, such as English for example.  Kymicka is an important theorist, for human rights scholars don’t particularly favour group rights over individual rights: Kymlicka argues by not incorporating minority group rights they are failing the liberal project.

The crucial argument here is the need for minority group rights, precisely because our society is multicultural and minorities within society often lack protection, recognition, respect and rights by majority governing powers.

Therefore, in summary, the argument being made is that it is not enough simply to push for a language planning or a language act, it needs to be backed up by minority group rights, where the minority group holds some form of power(s), and isn’t simply there to give advice to existing Acts.  Any ‘Deaf Perestroika’ demands radial structural changes to ensure language protection and promotion.

The debate follows my PhD research. One of the biggest concerns is that powers do not afford minority groups (i don’t just refer here to sign language communities) ‘epistemic justice’.  In other words, the minority group is not given a fair hearing by government in regards to its rights, and so practices that disregard its concerns continue, or the minority group is given token recognition. Yet it is within the minority group where there exist experts who hold a valuable understanding of a group’s rights and responsibilities.

I am not aware of a debate within the Deaf world on minority group rights possibilities; although Kymlicka wrote an article on the subject in 1998 and Jan-Kare Breivik has also commented on the issue in his work, both concluded that they did not see such rights as feasible.  The work, on this issue however, has not, as far as I’m aware, been subject to empirical research or the intense scrutiny and debate I think it deserves.  Historically, Deaf Studies is still very much a discipline in its infancy and sociological research funding is hard to come by.  Organisations seeking to protect the interests of Sign Language have perhaps been most concerned with the immediate ways in which sign languages and Deaf people can be protected, particularly within the ‘developing’ or majority nations.  The mechanisms for doing so are with (individual) Human Rights frameworks. They work with minimal resources, and on the statute books at least, there are inclusions that seek to protect sign language (although I’m aware these have been open to criticism because it has been argued, at the WFD Conference in Madrid in 2007, that mainstreaming of deaf children isn’t challenged as strongly as it could be).

Yet at the expense of pursuing the ratification of the rights of sign language users at a formal and official level there is a risk of failing to address a common academic critique: individual human rights, after 60 years since the end of the second world war, continue to fail to prevent abuses in the hearing world, often by countries that are the strongest supporters of individual human rights (just ask Amnesty!).  There is also an imbalance in the focus of human rights abuses in some nations more than others. Uncritically accepting that (individual) human rights of sign language users be fought for through official bodies such as the United Nations is to bestow legitimacy on those organisations to decide what constitutes a right within the Deaf world.

‘Differentiated minority group rights’ would not ditch individual rights, but they might enable the minority group to be the deciders of what constitutes a right within their community and culture.

The outline presented above could form the basis and framework for discussion and debate on the subject of minority group rights and Deaf communities that is, in my view, long overdue.

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