The International Week of Deaf People (IWDP) is an initiative of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), an international NGO with members in 130 countries. Launched in 1958, IWDP is hosted by deaf communities around the globe in the last full week of September. National, regional, and local events, conferences, commemorations, and community gatherings promote and celebrate the existence of deaf people as cultural and linguistic minorities communities within their countries, and their full inclusion in their societies.
Under the aegis of a different theme each year, the 2021 IWDP’s theme is “Celebrating Thriving Deaf Communities”, commemorating two centuries of deaf people creating sign language communities worldwide. Deaf communities are rich sites of unique cultural expressions in sign languages and recognition should also include promotion of this cultural identity, as outlined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
In 2017, the United Nations’ General Assembly adopted the Resolution 72/161 recognising 23 September as the International Day of Sign Languages (IDSL), part of the International Week of the Deaf. The choice of the date corresponds to the foundation of the World Federation of Deaf in Rome, Italy, on 23 September 1951, following more than a century of deaf people organizing on an international level for their rights.
The 2021 IDSL theme is “We Sign For Human Rights”, highlighting how each of us – deaf and hearing people around the world – can work together hand in hand to promote the recognition of our right to use sign languages in all areas of life.
The rationale of the International Day of Sign Languages is to raise awareness on the very existence of sign languages and strengthen their status as full languages globally. With more than 200 distinct sign languages around the world, they are the natural languages of more than 70 million deaf people worldwide and should be recognised as such.
Deaf people worldwide have historically faced – and continue to face – discrimination with regard to the use of their national sign languages. This discrimination encompasses the denial of receiving quality and inclusive education in the national sign language and national language, the lack of access to information and communication in their daily lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dire predicament of deaf people in accessing life-saving pandemic-related information in their national sign languages, placing deaf people as second-zone citizens. This is caused by the lack of official status of national sign languages as languages.
To date, only 61 of the UN’s 193 Member States have undertaken recognition of their national sign languages through a legal instrument. 66% have not done so, despite it being a legal obligation outlined in the CRPD, which is ratified by 182 UN Member States. “The legal recognition of sign languages is an important and necessary first step towards the full equality of deaf people in their national societies,” says WFD President Joseph J. Murray. “Further promotion of this right by the UN and its entities will help speed recognition by national governments.” “Every human being needs a language” said Dr. Murray. Deaf communities have led the way in calling for the status for their national sign languages to be equal to the other national languages.” Inclusion of deaf people and their communities in their societies can only be reached by the inclusion of their national sign languages in the linguistic landscape of their countries. Dr. Murray concluded “Let’s use this year’s IDSL and IWDP to build back with national sign languages at the center of our communities.”