Sign language underrated in Trinidad and Tobago

 Celine and Britney practise signing for a sign language course as part of their degree programme at University of Trinidad and Tobago. -  Courtesy  Rahul's Clubhouse
Celine and Britney practise signing for a sign language course as part of their degree programme at University of Trinidad and Tobago. - Courtesy Rahul's Clubhouse


Italian filmmaker and screenwriter Federico Fellini once said, “A different language is a different vision of life.” Fellini was attesting to the fact that learning a new language can positively influence an individual’s development on many levels. It can make an individual more receptive to new things – different cultures and lifestyles – more adaptable to new situations and open to new experiences.

Last Friday, Trinidad and Tobago joined the rest of the world in celebrating International Day of Sign Languages. This day, designated by the UN, presents a “unique opportunity to support and protect the linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all deaf people and other sign language users” and “to raise awareness of the importance of sign language in the full realisation of the human rights of people who are deaf,” according to the UN.

Also, importantly, “It acknowledges that early access to sign language and services in sign language, including quality education available in sign language, is vital to the growth and development of the deaf individual and critical to the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals.”

It is important to note that sign languages are fully developed languages and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises them, promotes their use and gives them equal status as spoken languages.

As a country that has signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it means that TT “accepts its legal obligations under the treaty and will adopt implementing legislation.”

The TT 2011 Population and Housing Census notes that there are 52,243 people with disabilities in our country. Of this number, 6,217 are related to hearing (some, lots of difficulty, or cannot do at all).

There are two schools for the deaf and various organisations supporting and advocating for people who are deaf and hard of hearing in our country. While there has been some progress since the first school was established in 1943 in Port of Spain, (three years later it moved to Cascade) many people who are deaf and hard of hearing are unable to access opportunities because we are yet to reach the stage where the use of sign language is accepted and promoted.

Jenny, 20, was born deaf. Her father, a schoolteacher, wanted his daughter to communicate and be independent.

He said, “I used to leave Mayaro and take her to a tutor in San Fernando who taught both of us sign language.

Sayeed uses sign language to communicate with an autistic child on an online session. - Courtesy Rahul's Clubhouse

"I didn’t want that she alone would learn to sign, I wanted the entire family to learn so that we could share that with her. It took us about five years to become fluent. Now the whole family signs and we have long discussions; we sign about everything.

"I think that making that decision to learn to sign has made us closer as a family. Otherwise, I don’t know what would have happened; Jenny would have probably felt left out, become frustrated. Our family would have been in a different place then.”

Sign language is still be to recognised as a language which can have a significant impact in our country. It is still limited to the schools for the deaf and taught at a handful of institutions.

In recent times we have seen that sign language interpreters are available for government functions, on public television for press conferences and news, for some disability seminars/conferences but that’s about it. It has remained mostly underrated because it is associated only with the deaf and hard-of-hearing populations, and this group continues to be marginalised at many levels.

Maybe we will give sign language the importance it deserves when we stop seeing it in such a narrow manner. Sign language is important for communication for people with autism and other disabilities, who may experience some level of speech delay

It can also be useful to those who suffer from strokes, those who may be physically unable to speak.

A good example is Aunty Jean, a 75-year-old grandmother who suffered a stroke three years ago. She has difficulty speaking, so her children hired a speech therapist to work with her. Her granddaughter, who had learnt basic sign language, started teaching her to sign and very soon the family realised that Aunty Jean was signing faster than she was forming words. They organised for her to learn to sign, along with her children, and now they are able to communicate with sign language, while the speech therapist continues to work with her.

If it is one thing we should focus on, especially as we just celebrated International Day of Sign Languages, is how we can promote sign language in TT.

Probably the fastest way to do that is to start by making sign language more accessible to everyone. We should teach it in schools, from primary school level and up. It’s time to we allow children an opportunity to study it as a subject, and to become fluent in signing; we can train more interpreters.

Then we can say that we are truly working towards making inclusion a reality in our country.

Radica Mahase is the founder/director of support Autism T&T


"Sign language underrated in Trinidad and Tobago"

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