"On Linguistic Rights of the Deaf"

KWAK Jeongran June 11, 2015


"Linguistic rights of the deaf" is a concept used to create a framework ensuring that the use of sign language by the deaf in their everyday lives is one of the fundamental human rights. Linguistic rights of the deaf in Japan are closely involved with the movement for recognition of the Japanese Sign Language, represented first and foremost by "Declaration of Deaf Culture" (by Harumi Kimura (deaf) and Yasuhiro Ichida (hearing)), which was published in magazine Gendai Shiso (Modern Thought) in 1995. Here is the opening line of the "Declaration of Deaf Culture": "The deaf are a linguistic minority speaking in Japanese Sign Language, a language different from Japanese" (Ichida/Kimura 1995=2000:8). "Declaration of Deaf Culture" made a point that "sign language used by the deaf in their everyday lives" is "Japanese Sign Language", and strongly criticized "deaf education that does not allow the deaf to study in Japanese Sign Language". It also made a point that "the fact that it is difficult to get sign-language interpreters for Japanese Sign Language" is unacceptable. One problem of Declaration of Deaf Culture is that in defining Japanese Sign Language, it limited it to sign language of the deaf with a system of grammar different from that of Japanese. This left out Signed Japanese (Nihongo taio shuwa), in which a speaker makes signs denominating words while making vocal utterances, which is why Declaration encountered strong opposition of the hearing-impaired persons using Signed Japanese, people with post-lingual deafness, and others. Nevertheless, Declaration of Deaf Culture, which brought up the issue of sign language used by the deaf in their everyday lives, made a great impact on both the deaf and the hearing.

Influenced by the Declaration in 2002, Japan Deaf Children and Parents Association published "Declaration of Deaf Children's Human Rights" stating that mother tongue of the deaf including deaf children is Japanese Sign Language and asserting their right to receive education in Japanese Sign Language, which is their native tongue (Japan Deaf Children and Parents Association (Ed.), 2003). Moreover, on May 27, 2003, a group of 107 people from all parts of the country comprised of deaf children and their parents submitted a request for human rights relief to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. The purport of the request was as follows.

@- To recognize and approve Japan Sign Language as a medium of instruction in schools for the deaf, and to give
@lessons in Japanese Sign Language in schools for the deaf.
@- To enable lessons in Japanese Sign Language in schools for the deaf, have Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports,
@Science and Technology appropriately appoint personnel understanding and using Japanese Sign Language as school
@staff, at the same time conducting regular and continuous training in Japanese Sign Language so that the staff not
@proficient in the language can become so (Japan Deaf Children and Parents Association (Ed.), 2004: 296).

Until now, deaf education in Japan was mainly conducted based on oral communication that centers on training in hearing ability and lip reading. However, it would be an overstatement to say that all deaf children were successfully educated by oral communication. In fact, many deaf children used sign language among themselves. However, a large number of teachers working in schools for the deaf are not deaf, and there is a considerable variation among teachers in sign language communication skills. As a result, schools for the deaf have been plagued with the problem of insufficient communication between teachers and pupils. Moreover, among the deaf, who attended deaf schools with oral communication, there are those, who state that they could not receive sufficient education. This way, request for human rights relief of the deaf children raised these issues of deaf education and, putting them in the framework of human rights, asserted the right of the deaf to study in sign language of the deaf, a language they can probably understand.

The point I want to make here is that to truly assert linguistic rights of the deaf we need to go further than merely emphasise the right to Japanese Sign Language. To really ensure linguistic rights of the deaf we need to defend their rights to be educated through bilingual deaf education using both the sign language, which is their first language, and reading and writing in Japanese, which is their second language. Linguistic rights mean not only the right of a linguistic minority to use its minority language, but also the right to study official languages, which are required for the people of the linguistic minority to participate and integrate in the society. Linguistic rights of the deaf should be treated in exactly the same way. So far, public education in Japan was conducted monolingually in just one language, and the concept of linguistic rights of the deaf is, in a manner of speaking, a critique of this "monolingualism" doctrine, asserting the need of "multilingualism".

Furthermore, what we need to understand is that bilingual deaf education comprised of Japanese Sign Language and reading and writing in Japanese cannot meet the linguistic needs of all deaf and hard of hearing people either. Among the deaf and hard of hearing, there are those, who use Japanese Sign Language in their everyday life, and also those, who use Signed Japanese. Moreover, there are those using hearing-aid and other devices and mainly use the spoken Japanese. Furthermore, some people change the method of communication depending on the situation or the person one is speaking to. If we take these aspects of the issue into account, there can be only one conclusion - that we should avoid discussing the pros and cons of Japanese Sign Language and other communication methods. And the reason is that linguistic rights are not rights of languages, but rights of persons using them (Kimura Goro-Kristof 2010). In other words, linguistic rights of the deaf to Japanese Sign Language must be ensured not because Japanese Sign Language is a full-fledged language, but because the right of the deaf to receive education using Japanese Sign Language has not been sufficiently ensured in deaf education so far. Therefore, I think that assertions and discussions involving linguistic rights of the deaf can be regarded as a part of a larger issue of rights for communication of the deaf and hard of hearing.

Japan Deaf Children and Parents Association (Ed.), 2003 Don't Take Our Language from Us!: Declaration of Deaf Children's Human Rights (in Japanese), Akashi Shoten

Japan Deaf Children and Parents Association (Ed.) 2004 Deaf Education and Linguistic Rights: A Full Picture of Request for Human Rights Relief of the Deaf Children (in Japanese), Akashi Shoten

Kimura Goro-Kristof 2010 "Reception and Evolution of "Linguistic Rights" in Japan," (in Japanese) Shakaigengo Kagaku (Sociolinguistics Sciences) 13 (1): 4-18

Kimura Harumi & Ichida Yasuhiro [1995] 2000 "Declaration of Deaf Culture," (in Japanese) Gendai Shiso Editorial Department (Ed.) Deaf Culture, Seidosha: 8-17

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