Happy International Day of Sign Languages! The UN first declared September 23 as the International Day of Sign Languages in 2018, and users of more than 300 sign languages across the globe have celebrated this occasion ever since. This worldwide population of sign language users currently includes several dozen U.S. Department of State employees (including me, the author of this article).
Many individuals are surprised to learn that other sign languages exist beyond ASL (American Sign Language). However, Black American Sign Language, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, Puerto Rican Sign Language, Native American sign languages, home signs, and potentially more all exist or have existed in the area of the modern United States alone. Next door in Canada, videos at Vancouver International Airport currently convey passenger information in ASL, International Sign Language, and LSQ (Quebec Sign Language), which is related to LSF (French Sign Language). And the State Department supported Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, Erin Moriarty, to explore Cambodian Sign Language, of which little was known or documented.
Individuals also ask me why the worldwide population of sign language users does not unite around a single sign language. The answers are simply the same reasons why spoken language users have not yet united around one. These delightful questions drive the art of diplomacy, where spoken, visual, tactile, and all forms of communication are our paintbrushes. Today, we honor visual forms of communication, which are just as indispensable and timeless as oral or written communication. Consider the words of philosopher Pierre Desloges in 1776:
“I cannot understand how a language like sign language – this richest in expressions, the most energetic, the most incalculably advantageous in its universal intelligibility – is still so neglected and that only the Deaf speak it (as it were). That is, I confess, one of those irrationalities of the human mind that I cannot explain.”
One century after Desloges, the history of sign languages reached a low point. The Milan Congress of 1880 on deaf education voted to ban the teaching of sign languages worldwide. Of the 164 voting delegates, only one was deaf. The Milan Congress helped institutionalize audism, or discrimination against deaf and hard of hearing people, through the still-standard pedagogy of teaching solely spoken languages.
Sign languages found a foothold in the establishment of the World Federation of the Deaf on September 23, 1951, a date commemorated in today’s holiday. The UN and the WHO work closely with the World Federation of the Deaf in promoting awareness that 25% of the global population has a disability but they remain “the world’s most invisible minority” in light of the drive to assimilate in all countries, including the United States. UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Fernand de Varennes often shares the story of a child named Marco, with full hearing, who was born to deaf parents. However, Marco is denied access to sign language education because Marco is “not disabled.” Marco’s story is one reason why the World Federation of the Deaf advocates “sign language rights for all.” Visual communication and sign languages have wonderful potential to invigorate diplomacy and government beyond the population with disabilities.
The United States government already employs individuals who communicate primarily in sign language in roles as advanced as and even former President Barack Obama’s . This heritage contributed to President Joseph Biden’s June 25, 2021 , which states: “because a workforce that includes people with disabilities is a stronger and more effective workforce, agencies must provide an equitable, accessible, and inclusive environment for employees with disabilities.” The Biden Administration has also made great strides in captioning and the availability of ASL interpreters at press conferences that benefit everyone.
On this International Day of Sign Languages, we may celebrate by learning at least a few words or the alphabet in one of our country’s sign languages.
About the Author: Robb Dooling serves as a Technical Editor in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. Department of State.