Every year, the global Deaf community celebrates the International Week of the Deaf (IWD) which begins with the International Day of Sign Languages. This year, the event started on Sunday, September 23, with rallies taking place across the country. Protesters expressed support for the Canadian Association of the Deaf (CAD), an organization lobbying the federal government to recognize various sign languages as official national languages. The CAD points out that over 45 countries already recognize sign languages as one of their official languages; Canada is not one of them. Protesters are looking for American Sign Language (ASL), Quebec Sign Language (LSQ), and Indigenous Sign Languages (ISL) to receive official recognition by the federal government.
While talks of recognizing sign languages as official languages of Canada were underway in 2016 through the Accessibility legislation (Bill C-81), the Bill does not explicitly focus on a commitment to language legislation. Instead, it speaks vaguely of tackling “barriers to inclusion for people with disabilities and functional limitations.
Mark Wheatley, Executive Director of the European Union of the Deaf (EUD), stated to The Daily that the first step in increasing inclusivity for the Deaf community is to recognize sign languages on a federal level. The access to and use of language are human rights that no community should be deprived of. If sign languages are made official Canadian languages, there will be an increase in the presence of sign language in public service. While sign language legislation is not an end-all be-all solution to the problem of inclusion and equality for the Deaf community, it is a crucial first step. Funding for sign language school programs is vital to increasing accessibility to education, and providing sign translation at events.
However, as ASL becomes more widely used, channels for spreading knowledge of ISL remain limited. Wheatley responded to these concerns by saying that enabling “Indigenous people to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, and access, on an equal basis with others, the information and communications through sign language, both in urban and in rural areas, is necessary.” The recognition of ISL as an official language and a financial commitment to expanding knowledge of ISL are important steps for language equity and for issues pertaining to Indigenous rights in Canada.
Legislation for sign language must be introduced to recognize the fundamental right of Deaf people to language accessibility, and guarantee their equal access to public resources in society. We must also be mindful that ISL is recognized on-par with the more widespread sign languages, namely ASL and LSQ, to ensure equality within the Deaf community. As a student community, we must support activists trying to make sign languages more accessible in Canada, and policy changes which would develop the use of sign languages in the public sphere.