The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed September 23rd as the International Day of Sign Languages, to raise awareness about sign languages and the important role they play in the full realization of human rights for all deaf people. The theme for 2023 is “A World Where Deaf People Everywhere Can Sign Anywhere!”. Today, let's take a look at how far we are from this grand vision, shall we?
There are over 300 different sign languages used by 70 million deaf people around the world. These sign languages are all fully-fledged natural languages, structurally distinct from the spoken languages of the communities in which they arise. Here in Hong Kong, there are around 6,000 people using Hong Kong Sign Language, which has its own grammar and vocabulary, distinct from spoken Chinese and English.
In recent years, we have seen great strides in the recognition and development of sign languages worldwide. More countries are legally recognizing their national sign languages, which empowers deaf communities and affirms their linguistic identity.
Comparatively, we still have a long road ahead here in Hong Kong, but we are still glad to see that sign language had an increasing acceptance and prevalence in Hong Kong over the past decade. Sign language interpretation is now available in government public announcements. We now have news programmes with sign language every day on television. Sign interpreter training programs at organizations and the university are helping to professionalize sign language interpretation services. Our organization is also running a sign bilingual and co-enrolment education programme to make sign language instruction available within mainstream education, to improve educational outcomes for both deaf and hearing children when they learn together.
While progress has been made, continued effort is still needed to make sign language fully accessible in schools, government services and the broader community. Policies have to be refined, resources have to be sought after, but most importantly, you can take part in this endeavour.
Here at SLCO Community Resources, we advocate “sign language for all”, which means that everyone, regardless of their hearing ability, can benefit from learning and using sign language. We build projects and services around these benefits to bring greater good to society as a whole. So what benefits are there?
First and foremost, learning sign language allows deaf and hearing people to communicate directly. This fosters greater inclusion in social situations, schools, workplaces and society at large.
Beyond the deaf community, sign language also offers benefits for other groups with special communication needs. For children with autism or other developmental disabilities, sign language provides them a way to communicate wants and needs through simple signs and gestural expressions. Developing sign language skills can also reduce frustration and improve social interaction and educational outcomes for these children.
As a vibrant and engaging visual language, sign language is effective in visualizing abstract concepts to enhance babies' early language and cognitive development. An Early exposure to sign language even allows hearing babies to communicate their needs and desires before they can speak.
Sign language also has advantages for the elderly. It can be used as effective visual cues during communication with seniors suffering from ageing hearing loss. Signing engages visuospatial areas of the brain, providing cognitive stimulation to seniors. Studies have even shown that learning and using sign language delays the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. Sign language can even help to overcome situational barriers, such as in loud environments or situations where speaking is difficult.
Overall, embracing and expanding sign language use promotes inclusion, accessibility, and quality of life for people across the spectrum of age and ability. Nowadays when diversity and inclusiveness are often emphasized, we should seriously rethink whether verbal communication is the only acceptable norm. Why not open ourselves to new modes of communication? Signing is not bound to those who cannot hear, signing is for everyone.
We can each take small steps to promote the use of sign language in Hong Kong. We can learn the very basics through one of the many online resources. We can request sign language classes or workshops at our workplace, school, or community centre. Arrange sign interpretation services for deaf participants in events and classes. Or just simply greet someone with sign language as we go about our day. With everyone taking a step forward, we are not that far away from building a community where all can communicate, all can thrive, and all belong.
Lastly, let me teach you a simple sign to start with. Hold your thumb up, and dip the tip of your thumb up and down towards someone that you would like to thank. This is “Thank You” in Hong Kong Sign Language. Thank you for listening, and I bring you the song “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. I wish you all a lovely and peaceful day.