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Opinion & Analysis

International Day of Sign Languages offers reminder of more to do

By Edgar Triay

International Day of Sign Languages is celebrated annually across the world on the 23rd September every year along with International Week of the Deaf. The choice of the 23rd September is the same date when the World Federation of the Deaf was established in 1951. The main aim of the World Federation of the Deaf is to promote the human rights of deaf people and to preserve, protect, and promote their sign languages and cultures. And this is what the Gibraltar Hearing Issues and Tinnitus Association [GHITA] is trying to achieve locally.

In Gibraltar we have four residents that depend on British Sign Language as the first choice of communication. For them, it is their first language and they have received a BSL education in the UK. There are others that have not received a formal BSL education and unfortunately have been denied access to sign language and live in a world where they find it hard to communicate with the hearing as well as with the Deaf. Without a BSL education they have been limited to gesturing, lip reading and broken written English. This is the Gibraltar GHITA wants to move away and firmly established access to BSL by not just the deaf but everyone else and create an inclusive society.

In partnership with Mr Brugada GA (father of a Deaf daughter), the Disability Society and the KUSUMA Trust as well as other sponsors, GHITA introduced British Sign Languages in Gibraltar and organised Signature UK certified BSL Level 1/2 courses. In total, GHITA trained over 80 people in BSL, including four local deaf BSL users from 2013-2022.

In 2022 GHITA brought the British Deaf Association campaign in the UK to Gibraltar. We successfully encourage the GSLP/Liberal Alliance Government to recognise BSL as an official language in Gibraltar in par with English when the BSL Act (2022) was passed. Since we have been around the GSLP/Liberal Gibraltar Government has recognised deafness as a disability in law (Disability Act 2017 – Agnes Law). Also, the use of services like Sign Video and BSL Interpreters has been supported by the current administration, but there is still a lot to introduce and improve. The use of in-person BSL Interpreters is the exception rather than the norm. None of the Government webpages or press releases are translated into British Sign Language. Access to information is further hindered by the fact that the national TV broadcaster Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation only uses subtitles on their online content. As for BSL Interpretation they have made the most of broadcasting BSL when they have covered an event that has already booked a live BSL interpreter.

Access to emergency and other services has improved after Covid-19 Pandemic with the introduction of WhatsApp mobile numbers and emails to apply for services. Gibraltar Government’s initiative has helped to make public services inclusive for the Hard of Hearing though more posted content translated into BSL is needed. The Gibraltar Health Authority have been pioneers for introducing Sign Video in Gibraltar, however their in-person BSL interpreting service needs to be expanded.

British Sign Language is not available in schools in Gibraltar, there is no teacher for the deaf employed. It is argued there are no profoundly deaf children to justify employing a teacher for the deaf.

What teaching professionals should be aware of is that whenever a cochlear implant/hearing aid gets faulty and is not working the child becomes profoundly deaf and unable to hear the spoken word thus affecting their education. Glue ear is prominent in children of school age and though the deafness is temporary between diagnosis and treatment the child could have experience deafness during their education for a year or more. Additionally, parents should be given choice of education for their children too. In Gibraltar Cochlear Implants are encouraged as the only solution to profound deafness. However not all children or individuals are medical candidates for such a procedure. For example, if you are born with a deformed cochlear, it would not work for you.

In 2021, the World Health Organization’s World Hearing Report noted that the use of sign language and other means of sensory substitution such as speech reading are important options for many deaf people; hearing assistive technology and services such as subtitles and sign language interpretation can further improve access to communication and education for those with hearing loss.

What should happen after the Gibraltar BSL Act 2022? In the Act’s first anniversary, the Minister of Equality should have presented to the Gibraltar Parliament a report detailing what the Equality Department have achieved and the road map to promote British Sign Language in Gibraltar. In our view, the way forward needs to include GHITA and the local deaf BSL users, not only consulted but allowed to participate in policy making. The future Gibraltar Government should set up a BSL Advisory Board where GHITA would be represented by a deaf BSL user and work together towards the successful implementation of the Gibraltar BSL Act.

Edgar Triay is the chairperson of the Gibraltar Hearing Issues and Tinnitus Association.

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