Each year, September 23rd marks a special day to celebrate, protect and support the diverse cultures and linguistic identities of deaf people and sign language users across the world. The theme for today’s 2021 International Day of Sign Languages is We Sign for Human Rights, which encourages everyone—both deaf and hearing people—to work together and promote the use of sign languages in all facets of life. There are over 30,000 Australians with total hearing loss who use sign languages, with a further 1 in 6 Australian people affected by partial deafness or hearing loss, so the International Day of Sign Languages is a fantastic opportunity to unite and celebrate this significant Australian community. Today, we recognise the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of sign languages worldwide, and also applaud the innumerable achievements of deaf and hearing impaired people.
As part of the broader International Week of Deaf People, which this year focusses on Celebrating Thriving Deaf Communities, the Day is a reminder of the depth of cultural richness amongst sign language users. The World Federation of the Deaf urges us to remember that deaf people are united by the diversity of the “communities, cultures, languages and sign languages” to which they belong, and to acknowledge the strength and endurance of these communities at a local, national, and international level.
With more than 70 million deaf people around the world, there exists an astounding 300 different sign languages. As fully developed languages in their own right, natural sign languages are nuanced, culturally specific, and structurally distinct from their corresponding spoken languages. The international sign language used for international relations is more informal and less complex than natural sign languages, but it allows for effective communication amongst deaf and hearing impaired people across geographic and cultural borders.
Particularly during the pandemic, the ability of all sign language users to adapt to the challenges posed by the sudden inundation of video calls, Zoom meetings and mask-wearing has been nothing short of incredible. Indeed, all Australians have been made unprecedentedly aware of Auslan (Australian Sign Language) over the past two years, given that every televised press conference given by state and federal leaders is accompanied by a language interpreter. This national exposure and recognition is crucial not just at a personal level for those who use sign languages, but for the expansion of the Australian deaf community and supporting groups more broadly.
For further reading on sign languages, you may be interested in:
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