Language Education Policy Studies
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Sign Language and Linguistic Human Rights:

Perspectives on Deaf Education

Sign language is the first language or mother tongue for about 70 million deaf people all around the world, as well as for many hearing and deafblind people (Sign Language, n.d., para. 1). Each country has at least one sign language, although it is quite common for some to have two or more (Sign Language, n.d., para. 1). In total 271 sign languages, dialects, or other sign systems have been identified throughout the world (Sign Languages of the World by Name, n.d.). Linguistic research enacted since the 1960s has shown that sign languages are intricate natural languages, playing an integral part of the Deaf culture and community from local to national levels (Sign Language, n.d., para. 4). A common viewpoint in regards to deafness is that it is a medical affliction distinguished by an auditory deficiency. An alternative and growing perspective supports a “sociocultural” view of deafness as a fundamentally cultural and linguistic condition as opposed to just a physiological handicap (Reagan, 2014).  The deaf and hard of hearing are not merely physically disabled individuals, but rather citizens of marginalized and disadvantaged linguistic groups whose rights and needs to be further acknowledged.


Endeavors from deaf communities to achieve official recognition of their sign languages are more common as there has been an increase in the number of countries that have done just that in the last few decades (Reagan, 2014).  There exists a variation in the nature of the official recognition of sign languages from one country or region to another, as well as the level of legislative involvement (Reagan, 2014). The recognition of sign language achieving official status is impactful in three ways. First, it acknowledges and legitimizes sign language as the vernacular language of a nation’s deaf community. In legal and social context, it guarantees linguistic human rights for users of sign language. Lastly, it necessitates that the needs of deaf students are addressed within the educational setting (Reagan, 2014).


As with all children, deaf students should have access to an equal and quality education in where policymakers support their linguistic and educational rights. “Deaf children are born with the same basic capacities for learning and language as all children; they can and should reach their full potential with appropriate, visual, quality educational programs and support” (Policy- Education Rights for Deaf Children, n.d., para. 4).


Effective language-in-education planning includes providing adequate personnel and staffing to support students' linguistic needs (Hult & Compton, 2012). Knowledgeable and qualified teachers are key to supporting students’ linguistic needs in the classroom. Proper preparation for staff is essential such as providing training as educational interpreters and in assisting children with low-incidence disabilities. While efforts in helping deaf students gain access to school and school-related activities have a positive impact, a stronger focus can be made in fostering communicative skills within a multimodal context (Hult & Compton, 2012). Linguists, with important social force as experts on matters of language, are in a position to exert influence on educational policy and practice that can best meet the needs of deaf students (Nash, 1987). 


Human Rights Watch: Offer Deaf Children Education in Sign Language


World Federation of the Deaf- Education Rights for Deaf Children


Hult, F.M & Compton, S.E. (2012). Deaf Education Policy as Language Policy: A Comparative Analysis of Sweden and the United States. Sign Language Studies (12)4. 602-620.

Nash, J.E. (1987). Policy and practice in the American Sign Language community. International Journal of the Sociology of Language (68), 7-23.

Policy- Education Rights for Deaf Children. (n.d.) In World Federation for the Deaf. Retrieved from


Reagan, T. (2014). Language Policy for Sign Languages. In C. Chapelle (Ed.)The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics (pp. 1-6). Blackwell Publishing. DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal1417


Sign Language. (n.d.) In World Federation for the Deaf. Retrieved from


Sign Languages of the World by Name. (n.d.) In Gallaudet University Library. Retrieved from



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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as


Butsic, Mayriza. (2015). Sign Language and Linguistic Human Rights: Perspectives on Deaf Education. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date).