Next week, over 1,000 people from across the EU will descend on the European Parliament chamber to demand better recognition of sign language, and to raise awareness of how sign language interpreters are often an afterthought compared to spoken language interpretation across many public institutions, including the EU.
The conference is being organised by MEP Helga Stevens, the first woman MEP who identifies as a deaf sign language user, and a campaigner for the rights of deaf and disabled people.
The conference, to be held on Wednesday 28th September is titled, "Multilingualism and equal rights in the EU: the role of sign languages". It aims to showcase sign languages as part of Europe’s multicultural and multilingual heritage while at the same time raising awareness of the heterogeneous situation of sign language interpreters, which is in stark contrast to the regulated spoken language interpreting profession.
The conference, which will be held in the hemicycle in Brussels, will be interpreted into all 31 EU sign languages as well as all 24 official spoken languages. Over 1,000 participants from all EU countries have already registered and there will be an unprecedented level of accessibility, including an extra room for those who need a quiet place, Braille programmes, and speech-to-text facilities. Ms Stevens co-operated with a range of European deaf and disability organisations to ensure the participation of as many people as possible.
The conference will result in a draft resolution on sign languages and professional sign language interpreters, which will be presented to the European Parliament's plenary later in the year. Already, in sign language resolutions of both 1988 and 1998, the European Parliament highlighted the lack of recognition of sign languages and professional and qualified sign language interpreters. While the recognition of sign languages has steadily increased and improved at national level, sign language interpreters are still lagging behind in many Member States compared to spoken language interpreters.
With the EU ratifying the UN CRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) in 2010, the European Union institutions are now under a legal obligation to implement the provisions contained in the Convention, which includes accessibility and equality for all disabled citizens.
To this effect, Ms Stevens was the rapporteur of an implementation report on the CRPD, which was adopted with an overwhelming majority in the July plenary. Among other things, it also called for the full accessibility of the EU institutions, which includes the provision of sign language interpreters for public events and meetings.
The conference has the support of over 60 MEPs from across the EU and the political spectrum, with MEPs from the ECR, EPP, S&D, ALDE, GUE/NGL, Greens/EFA, and EFDD involved.
The EU has 24 official spoken languages, but it also has 31 different sign languages that are often overlooked, leaving many deaf people excluded from public life. Just as we provide spoken interpretation to recognise Europe's linguistic diversity, I want us to send out a clear signal that we must not forget those who also require sign language interpretation, or those highly-skilled professionals who provide interpretation to deaf people across Europe.
"By holding this conference I hope we can support the efforts being carried out a national level and show that sign languages are as much a part of Europe's multilingual heritage as spoken languages.
Cover Picture: JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images