Sign language and the International Week of the Deaf

This week (24-30 September) we celebrate the International Week of the Deaf (IWD). As explained on the website of the American National Association of the Deaf, the aim is “to attract the attention of decision makers, general public, and media to the problems and concerns deaf persons face and make them understand that deaf people have human rights too! So the International Week of the Deaf is all about getting together, feeling united and powerful and showing that unity to the rest of the world.”

In 2012, the theme of IWD is “Sign Bilingualism is a Human Right!” This focuses on the rights of the deaf to have access to information in a form that they can use, and to not be discriminated against because of their disability.

Technology used to teach sign language. This is part of a South African research initiative called the National Accessibility Portal (, which is focused on research activities supporting accessibility for people with various disabilities including the deaf and the blind. In the case of this project, the technologies supporting the deaf are applied to South African sign language, which is closely related to the British, Australian and New Zealand Sign language.
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Did you know that, despite sign language being a non-verbal means of communication, there isn’t a single sign language shared and understood by all users around the world?  (There is an ‘International Sign Language’, but this is typically only used at international Deaf events such as the Deaflympics and meetings of the World Federation of the Deaf.) Even though sign language is not directly related to, or based on, oral languages, there are various dialects around the world, in some cases very different to one another. British Sign Language and American Sign Language, for example, are very different despite these countries sharing English as a common oral language.  Sign language in the USA and Canada are based on the French sign language family, while the UK, Australia and New Zealand share a language known as British, Australian and New Zealand Sign language (BANZSL).  In addition to these, there are numerous more sign language families, for example Danish Sign Language (including Norwegian, Icelandic and Swedish dialects), Japanese Sign Language (including Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean), German sign language, and more.

Reading up on the intricacies and complexities of the different dialects and sign language families only reiterated to me how little I know about the subject. And I suppose it is exactly this ignorance that initiatives like the International Week of the Deaf tries to address.

Can you ‘speak’ sign language? Know anyone who can?