language minorities

The meaning of ‘harm’, and indigenous movements elsewhere

Time for a recap : I’ve been buried in writing up a bid (now finished), and during the process I was sent what I think is a really important article, written in the ‘Harm Reduction Journal’. (With absolutely massive thanks to Dr Hilary Sutherland for passing on to me.)

Now, I tried to write on similar lines in 2007 : ‘what is wrong with sign bilingualism…it is a positive and fantastic thing!’, arguing that sign language is not harmful to introduce and teach – do it alongside other methods if you have to, just do it.  Other methods can bring unnecessary harm, and were what I call ‘statist’ (which in the context of my article means simply forced).  If governments claim they were impartial in such a debate, I call that benign neglect, i.e. turning a blind eye while harm happens.  Acquiescence. Bringing sign into the classroom is not statist, because it is not harmful and, above all, it is most definitely not forced. If it was I would not support it.

Sign language in the deaf child’s life allows for their natural development, and meets the demands of social justice, natural justice, identity construction, human rights, and group rights. I’m careful to avoid the concept ‘choice’.  The focus on ‘choice’ has, I would argue, meant lost opportunities to reflect upon other potential avenues for radical change…which is what is needed in the case of the education of deaf children. Choice is cool for a supermarket, clothes, films, choosing political parties….but education? Does that concern aesthetics? We are arguing about the quality of life, the ability to engage in society as equal citizens.

In comes the article I was referring to earlier: which is one of the most important I’ve seen in the 21st century – it is that good and I would urge every student of deaf studies, and laypeople everywhere, to take time to read. It isn’t a long article, it might take a few reads for a person who isn’t familiar with the discourse, but what it states is supremely important: that fitting a deaf child with cochlear implants and expecting their language development via a sole focus on speech is harmful. It generates linguistic deprivation. There are 103 references – for such a short article that shows the work that the authors have put into it – and it was so good it was immediately accepted for publication following peer-review.

I am proud to name all the authors: Tom Humphries, Poorna Kushalnagar, Gaurav Mathur, Donna Jo Napoli, Carol Padden, Christian Rathmann, and Scott R Smith.

A couple of other articles have also caught my eye lately, the first provided by Dr Colin Gavaghan from Aotearoa ; there is a campaign for schools to teach te reo (Maori language) as a mandatory subject on the national curriculum. (I’ve lost the original link, but the story it relates to is there.) I hope they are successful, in spite of the opposing comments under that article.

Being able to master two or more languages has long been considered beneficial to the brain. It is not harmful. (Thanks to Naomi for the link.)

I’m attracted to the idea of mandatory sign bilingualism, which doesn’t oppress spoken or written english, french, spanish, or whatever…it places them in the context of what the child is realistically able to acquire. It doesn’t force  speech (which is what statist policies do), it encourages it where it’s possible, but it includes sign language in that process. That is critical not just for language acquisition, but for identity development.

Finally, I was intrigued by this article too: calling for a National Unity Government in Australia. I know friends with strong connections to Australia, and I am eager to find out more about this development. Statement of principle number 4 interests me: “It is recognised and accepted that we as First Nations Peoples have been deprived of our basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, which resulted from British colonisation and dispossession.”

The least I can do as a British subject (not a proud one by the way)  is support these moves to address problems for which my past governments were responsible.

Ok, off my soapbox now and back to my running!

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Colombia experiencias de talleres de FENASCOL (versión en español)

Gracias de corazón a Paula Vargas, para la traducción al español (Heartfelt thanks to Paula Vargas for the translation to Spanish)

Al llegar a Bogotá (el 24 de marzo), P y yo nos dirigimos al hostal que habíamos reservado con bastante anterioridad. Al llegar al lugar nos enteramos de que nuestra habitación había sido asignada a otra persona. Desinflados, aceptamos la invitación de M, la hermana de P que vive en Bogotá y nos dirigimos a su apartamento. Éste se mantuvo como nuestra base para los seis días que estuvimos en la capital de Colombia.

Recordaré mi estadía en Bogotá por tres cosas: el viaje en tren a vapor para algunas ciudades pequeñas en las afueras de la ciudad, la experiencia de correr a gran altura, y los dos talleres realizados en FENASCOL (Federación Nacional de Sordos de Colombia), donde me reuní con varios líderes Sordos de Bogotá. Realicé dos visitas a su organización: la primera fue un breve encuentro para conocer a las personas de FENASCOL y amoldarse a la comunicación (todos usábamos lenguaje de señas, pero el LSC es muy distinto al BSL, de manera que usamos bastante del Lenguaje de Señas Internacional). En la segunda visita, dirigí un taller, aunque en realidad el objetivo era una reunión informal para compartir ideas y experiencias.

Anduvimos un poco perdidos tratando de encontrar la sede de FENASCOL, pues nos guiaron en la dirección equivocada varias veces! Al final nos dimos por vencidos y tomamos un taxi, porque íbamos a llegar tarde! Al llegar, me dieron un pequeño tour por todo el edificio, me presentaron a muchas personas sordas y me dieron una breve presentación, en Seña Internacional, acerca de FENASCOL. Es una organización relativamente joven, que sólo se formó en 1984, pero su historia y la situación actual es impresionante y merece un reconocimiento más allá de Suramérica. Ellos tienen una visión clara (misión, visión, objetivos) de lo que es FENASCOL; tienen conexiones directas y vínculos con el gobierno donde están en la capacidad de influir en políticas, y una estructura clara que es liderada por varios líderes Sordos. Su enfoque en la tecnología es algo que encontré particularmente inspirador, ya que están dedicados a asegurar el acceso a través de Lengua de Señas Colombiana (LSC), el establecimiento de subtitulación en la televisión y poner en funcionamiento un servicio telefónico en LSC.

Todo lo cual me dejó en una especie de dilema, ya que FENASCOL está claramente adelantado en muchos aspectos. Así que junté unos cuantoas diapositivas de Powerpoint sobre mi trabajo en la Ciudadanía, que se remonta a la época en que empecé mi tesis doctoral (2002). También mostré algunas fotografías de los años de activismo durante el período 1997-2003 que llevó al reconocimiento del BSL. (De hecho el LSC fue reconocido por el gobierno colombiano en el año 1996 más o menos, mucho antes de que el Reino Unido). El enfoque de FENASCOL es lo que yo llamaría persuasivo, donde tienen manifestaciones culturales de Orgullo Sordo y desfiles al tiempo que tratan de convencer al gobierno de la importancia del reconocimiento del LSC y el acceso para las personas cuya primera lengua es el LSC.

Yo no estaba en condiciones de representar al BDA, la organización hermana más cercana a FENASCOL, pero expliqué un poco acerca del post-reconocimiento, donde el gobierno del Reino Unido había proporcionado £1,5 millones a proyectos para aumentar la divulgación del BSL en toda la sociedad: la mayoría de los cuales hizo no fue directamente al BDA, y mucho menos al FDP. También le expliqué la gran cantidad de organizaciones que existen en el Reino Unido, y que tratan de unirse bajo el ‘paraguas’ de UKCOD, a pesar de que la filosofía de algunas de esas organizaciones son muy diferentes.

Lo que siguió fue un debate muy intenso y vivo en torno a varios temas. Los primeros estaban relacionados a la ciudadanía: la mayor parte de esta discusión se llevó a cabo en LSC, pero un punto importante fue si las personas Sordas deben aceptar beneficios y apoyo bajo las leyes de discapacidad, o si deben tratar de alejarse de aquellas leyes para con el fin de promover su autonomía. Sin embargo, como uno de los colegas señaló, estos eran más temas políticos que temas gubernamentales, ya que es a través de la política que las personas sordas están posicionadas en la sociedad.

Me preguntadaron acerca Deafhood, tal como esperaba, e hice mi mejor esfuerzo para explicar el concepto. No fue algo sorpresivo que esto condujera a otro debate muy animado, durante la cual tuve la oportunidad de tomar asiento entre el grupo, mientras que las personas sordas discutián el tema de Deafhood desde su perspectiva. Gran parte de esta discusión se volcó hacia la educación de niños sordos y el lugar que ocupan aquellos que se han incorporado al sistema educativo estandarizado (por ejemplo, aquellas personas sordas que fueron integradas al sistema educativo estándar, desarrollar Deafhood?).

Tal fue la emoción y el ambiente emotivo generado por estos talleres que la primera noche se alargó por hora y media más, mientras que la segunda duró cinco horas de corrido, con una pausa breve de 15minutos! Personalmente, me sentí orgulloso de mí mismo por haber participado y por haber podido captar la mayoría de las cosas que se comunicaban a través de Seña Internacional – sin duda me ayudó la experiencia de tantos años en contacto con personas sordas que usan distintos idiomas.

Y no he olvidado la promesa hecha que voy a tratar de hacer realidad: enlazar por video a FENASCOL y al CDS para discutir Deafhood!

¿Y qué del viaje en tren a vapor, y de correr a gran altura?

Bueno, el viaje en tren fue lento y nos tomó todo el día, lo cual es intencional y relajante. P y yo pudimos ver un par de pequeños pueblos, empaparnos de la atmósfera, y disfrutar de auténtico café colombiano y tortas! Una experiencia inolvidable fue la banda que tocaba en cada uno de los vagones del tren hasta el final del viaje, y en los lugares donde paramos: Incluyo una foto aquí:

Y la corrida a gran altura! A mi llegada a Bogotá, me pregunté por qué tanta bulla acerca de ser una ciudad tan alta, pues yo podía respirar perfectamente. (Bogotá está a unos 3600 metros más cerca de las estrellas.) Qué inocente. Después de correr los primeros 200 metros de un trote planeado para 20 minutos en el Parque Country Club, estaba luchando por respirar y mis piernas se sentían como si acabaran de ser inyectadas con plomo. “Se me pasará”, pensé para mis adentros. Pero no fue así, de manera que tuve que luchar zancada a zancada. Y pensar que en Bogotá se corre una media maratón!

Después de la trotada en el Parque, P me condujo por un supuesto “atajo” que en realidad resultó ser una “vueltota”, pero no puedo ser muy duro: fue ella quien encontró el lugar ideal para trotar. Y fue también ella quien ayudó en el vínculo entre FENASCOL y yo para hacer realidad los dos talleres.

Me alegró poder trotar nuevamente, esta vez durante 40 minutos. Espero regresar a Colombia en el futuro y ver más de Bogotá. Pero una cosa es segura: no será para correr una media maratón!

Urgent: Bristol Deaf Centre sale and closure imminent!

So it’s official re: the seriousness of the situation of the Bristol Deaf Centre, which faces imminent closure, as reported by the Evening Post just before Xmas. This follows an article by Charlie Swinbourne recently on the woes being faced by Bristol Deaf people – which is, to put it metaphorically, a large pair of scissors.  Cut, cut, cut. Cut the school, cut the Deaf Studies courses, cut the Deaf Centre.

Bristol Deaf people are now faced with the problem that unless a solution can be found within the next few weeks, there is a possibility that the Deaf Centre will become liable to Avon Pension Fund so as to meet a debt (£700k) that was not of local Deaf people’s making.

It is now known that as far back as Nov 2007 that there was a pension debt of £300k, and yet there was no pressure then on the Centre to sell to pay off that debt. More importantly, there was no known discussion with local Deaf people about what to do about such a growing debt in 2007 nor has there been up until now. [Click this link will open into a PDF Document.]

Ok, so there are obviously issues related to the past that come into play here; and these should be looked into.  And, also, let’s be honest: the pension issue is not one that only affects Deaf people’s Centre – there was a huge strike on November 30th about cuts in people’s pensions.

Yet as people were pointing out at the meeting, this is the Deaf Centre we are discussing: just take a look at what it has to offer Deaf, hard of hearing AND hearing people. For 127 years Deaf people have had a meeting place, to socialise together, to build networks with local and national communities, to teach sign language classes, to ensure the more vulnerable Deaf people had support and companionship. But, above all, where hearing parents of deaf children could take their young people and introduce them to the world of Deaf people, show them role models for their future, enable them to develop an identity.

On that note a personal detour. I myself, mainstreamed (like 90-odd percent of deaf children in the UK today), still vividly recall memories of attending the annual Deaf Centre Xmas parties, to which my mother took me. Vibrant, happy, full of fun, and Deaf adults who I never had an opportunity to see daily.

So whatever the situation, the politics, the pension, the council, the services, etc, this issue is about a community, a people, a culture, a way of life, a contribution to Bristol’s history – and the Centre itself is based in an area known for it’s local community diversity: Stokes Croft.

So the question is always: what is to be done to regenerate or save the centre? Now?

I’m heartened by the turn-out of numbers of people at recent EGMs (23rd September, 2nd November and 21st December) – one just 4 days before Xmas woah! All meetings were totally packed out, spilling out of the main hall, and the depth and extent of the passion in the air is a clear indication of just how much people value the Centre and want to see the continuation of a central meeting point, a hub, a club, a pub, call it what you want.

Question: can that passion be turned into something that will either save the Centre from closure or see the emergence of new beginnings?

So many people do care and want to act, do something, anything, to try and find a solution: be it through campaigns, meetings, become a trustee, or whatever. But at present, and let’s be honest, it appears the majority are spectators. They see fiery meetings, and are witnesses to a sparky debate. Not always a great spectacle, and a bit like seeing a car crash scene and finding yourself unable to look away.

Worse still is to be left feeling ‘oh what’s the point, the end is inevitable anyway’.

So, what’s next?

There is an AGM on February 8th. Motions need to be in to the AGM two weeks before that time.

Well, it’s certainly an option to sit around until then and wait for yet another fiery passionate meeting, allowing people to get up and have their say, but that is hardly the issue. The fact is that behind the scenes, plans are being put in place to sell the Centre and leave Bristol Deaf people either homeless or in a temporary place. Indefinitely, for all we know, for these situations leave one hard to know who to trust.

I have been active in the Interim Working Group to try and collect information about the situation the Centre finds itself in. [Please see below.] And I’m exhausted from it, especially as it has been almost Kafkaesque in nature – you know those situations where you reach a line, finally, only to find it has been moved forward or sideways…yet again.

The Interim Group suggested it would need a period of 6 or so months (from November 2011) to gather information but all the while it has been doing so, events have moved on.

We may well have reached a point where there is little more we can do in terms of gathering information.

[By the way, see below for an outline that shows what the Interim Working Group was set up for and what shady activities it has been up to…as you’ll see, nothing sinister. Just trying to get information together.]

Now let’s take a look at the Elim Housing offer to buy the building and reconvert the land into a block of flats, allowing the Deaf Centre to rent out the ground floor (at a cost) on a 125-year lease.  But does their offer really represent an adequate or fair ‘option’. How much is the Deaf Centre really worth? What would it sell for? Evaluations reported in the Evening Post are not independent of the sale to Elim Housing, which, by the way, has a church of the same name just round the corner from the Centre – I can’t work out if the two are linked are not…

Should a fresh, new group of trustees be set up to begin a re-building process? If so, who might they be? What might they do? What support would they get?  Would they simply become a ‘mopping up’ brigade of the type we saw after the August riots? And what exactly would they have to build with in terms of money, capital, and people?

I am not writing pretending that I have answers to the situation. But there is one thing I do feel quite strongly about, as I’m sure a lot of people do: The Deaf Centre belongs to Bristol Deaf people: it has that name for a reason. The current Centre was bought in 1973 on that basis and it is through no fault of the community that a debt of £700k has built up. It has been the home of the Bristol Deaf community, the meeting point, the focus of much that happens in the Bristol Deaf Community.

It would be completely unjust and unfair for all of that to be lost, or reduced, to pay a pension fund deficit that is not of Bristol Deaf people’s own making.

entry ends

Statement from Interim Working Group members for meeting of 21/12/11

On Wednesday 2nd November, an EGM of the Bristol Centre for Deaf People was held.

At the meeting, it was voted on and agreed an Interim Working Group would be set up to obtain information for the benefit of the Bristol Deaf Community. The information would be required to help Deaf people make a decision about the future of the Deaf Centre.

On Wednesday 16th November, the Interim Working Group held an open meeting at the Deaf Centre. We explained that we had held a meeting with a very experienced legal adviser and the adviser gave us a list of important information that was necessary before the Deaf community could make informed decisions about the future of the Centre.

We explained that our aim was to try to obtain 8 pieces of information and we will list it here and explain what has happened in response, in bold:

Firstly, we want to express our thanks to people who have agreed and been willing to meet us in the last few weeks

  1. the minutes of all meetings of trustees held during the calendar years 2008 to 2011;

These have not been provided

  1. the accounts to the year ended 31 March 2010 (as recited on the website of the Charity Commissioners);
  1. all draft accounts prepared in respect of any period after the year ended 31 March 2010;

These have been provided and are available – it is now up to the Board to distribute these to you.

  1. the “governing documents” referred to on the website of the Charity Commissioners, namely the “constitution adopted 24 January 1979 as amended 26 September 1984 and 5 December 1990” plus any documents effecting material changes subsequent to those documents;

These have not been provided 

  1. the original title deeds to the land and buildings at 16-18 Kings Square (now registered under title no. BL38229 – including but not limited to the conveyance dated 16 February 1973 referred to in the Charges Register) ;

These have not been provided, but we understand the land and buildings belongs entirely to the Bristol Centre for Deaf People

  1. any emails or other communications relating to the nature and extent of the pension deficit/liability;

Some information has been provided and the Board will be making this available at the meeting for 21/12/11 

  1. correspondence (including emails) between Bristol City Council and the trustees/centre relating to funding / its withdrawal; and

 These have not been provided

  1. written confirmation that no assets or functions have been transferred to the private company limited by guarantee incorporated on 5 August 2010 under company number 07336999 under the name “Centre for the Deaf Limited”.

No written information has been provided – however we are assured that no transfers have been made.

We have reached a point where we have done everything possible to try to obtain the above information for your benefit; it is up to the Board to provide the information to you and we have done our best and worked hard to try to get them to provide the necessary information.

IWG meetings and legal communication

November 21st – meeting between Elim Housing, Deaf Centre, Bristol City Council

November 23rd – meeting with legal advisor

November 30th – meeting with representative of Deaf Centre board

December 8th – meeting with representatives of Bristol City Council

December 12th – meeting with legal advisor

December 20th – meeting with staff at Deaf Centre

The legal adviser has written two strong letters requesting information from the Board

The IWG has communicated via email regularly with the legal advisor, Bristol City Council and a representative from the Board.

The IWG has met on a total of four occasions since November 16th

Ends

Hungary sets the standards for the world’s Deaf people!

A few words about a conference that took place in Budapest, Hungary on 25/26 March to which I was an invited speaker, entitled: ‘Multilingualism in Europe: prospects and practices in East-Central Europe’.

Detailed conference information can be found here

There is an explanation of the conference in International Sign via You-tube here

It was specifically a conference on multilingualism, with the focus on the minority or lesser used languages in East-Central Europe.

And what an amazing spectacle it was!

The majority of the presentations were papers on the realities of making minority languages inclusive across east-central states where majority languages such as German, English, French, etc, dominate. Many papers were given on specific experiences of language minorities such as Slovakian, Ukrainian, or Lithuanian for example, but there were three strands in particular that stood out: the Hungarian situation (particularly where Hungarian is a minority language, in Romania, for example), the situation of Roma people, and, of course, sign language people.

The local Hungarian Deaf people were present and involved, putting on poetry, and theatre for the main audience.  The sessions on sign language involved scholars, Deaf and hearing, from Hungary, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Finland and the UK, amongst others. There were interpreters in Hungaran Sign Language, British Sign Language and International Sign.

Now, this is not the first time scholars from sign language studies or Deaf studies have been present at or presented at conferences on minority language minority issues. My experience of attending these conferences is that the sessions on sign language tend to be poorly attended, sometimes it’s only the plenary speakers who actually attend (!), but here every one of the 60 or so seats were taken, and people had to stand at the back and many couldn’t get into the room. There was a genuine interest in sign language issues amongst delegates.

Many of the questions after the sessions were directed at the speaker from Holland, Trude Schermer, where the government have insisted on standardisation of the language in that nation.

The keynote speakers of the sign language session, Ádám Kósa (the sole Deaf Member of the European Parliament) and Mark Wheatley (Executive Director of the European Union of the Deaf), discussed the various sign language recognition acts across Europe, and outlined the plans for European wide action that were agreed by all 23 Deaf Associations in Europe at the European Parliament meeting in November 2010. Much of this was focused on making use of European Disability legislation, particularly in the area of employment, where the European Parliament has a 10-year plan (2010-2020).

There was nothing wrong with this focus, but I do think it might have puzzled some delegates as to why there was a heavy plan of action in the area of ‘disability’ legislation when there was such a strong emphasis on sign languages as minority languages in Europe alongside the lesser used and minority spoken languages across Europe.

Many of the presentations also came across as a promotion of their service or organisation, as opposed to, for example, addressing pressing issues of how sign language people might press ahead and become included within the many charters on European minority language recognition.

Not that the spoken languages are having that much luck with these either: and therefore, we can begin to see some common cause with language minority groups, especially, in my view, Roma people.

None of these criticisms are meant to take away the fantastic achievements of Ádám Kósa, the Hungarian Deaf Association, and the organisers of the conference, and what they have achieved. My understanding is that one of the (hearing) organisers of the conference has been trying to set this up for 25 years! Dream realised!

What I think they have, in fact, done is laid down a challenge to Deaf people everywhere, and shown what is possible with a bit of focused action, support from some real allies, and a bit of funding, if people find the political will to go for what they believe (as opposed to endlessly complaining about where they ought to be or not to be).

The organisers have thanked me endlessly for accepting the invitation to attend, but I feel far more grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of such an important conference and occasion.

Finally…sitting in my hotel room doing nothing in particular, I had the t.v. on the Hungarian Parliament Channel – I left it on there because the whole thing was being sign language interpreted live – not that I could understand it all, so I pottered about with my papers. SuddenlyÁdám Kósa appeared and made a contribution to the debate, so I sat and watched as he made his points, with the other Hungarian Deaf MP, Gergely Tapolczai (they have two in the Parliament!) sitting by his side. I have seen Ádám present before, so the whole situation felt very real, but also suddenly unreal.

At the conference I remarked on this, and Gergely explained to me he had earlier signed in Hungarian Sign Language and asked the interpreters not to do the voice over so the MP’s could watch him and see how it felt.

Somehow it feels like I will never see the day when I switch on Freeview Channel 81 and see Deaf MP’s signing away – I don’t particularly wish to become an MP, but those who do, should take heart from this conference. And Deaf people everywhere, if you feel so strongly about being a minority group you can take great inspiration from the example of Hungary, and make it happen in your own nation, region or indeed, the world.

 

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.