Doc. 9738

17 March 2003

Protection of sign languages in the member states
of the Council of Europe


Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights

Rapporteur: Mr Malcolm Bruce, United Kingdom, Liberal, Democratic and Reformers' Group


The recognition of sign languages by the Council of Europe’s member states as a natural and complete means of communication for deaf people will promote the integration of these persons into society and will facilitate their access to education, employment and justice.

The intensity of the demand for interpreters as well as the beneficial effects for integration are visible in the countries which give an official status to these languages.

In the countries which have not yet done so, their recognition will lead to the training and recruitment of more interpreters.

The report recommends that precise needs be evaluated at European level, that a European legal instrument be drawn up on the rights of the users of these languages and that various measures aimed at guaranteeing the equality of rights be adopted in each member state.

I.        Draft recommendation

1.       The Parliamentary Assembly recalls its Recommendation 1492 (2001) on the rights of national minorities, particularly paragraph 12.xiii. concerning sign languages.

2.       The Assembly takes note of the reply by the Committee of Ministers to this recommendation, contained in document 9492. It regrets that the Committee of Ministers did not make a pronouncement on the opinions delivered by the Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and by the Committee on the Rehabilitation and Integration of People with Disabilities (Partial Agreement). This reply warrants, if any justification were needed, the Parliamentary Assembly’s concern that the rights of sign language users should be incorporated into a specific legal instrument, or into a protocol to the Charter, without prejudging the position that may be adopted by the organisations representing the deaf.

3.       The Assembly recognises sign languages as the expression of Europe’s cultural wealth. They are a feature of Europe’s linguistic and cultural heritage.

4.        The Assembly recognises sign languages as a complete and natural means of communication for the deaf.

5.        The Assembly takes the view that official recognition of these languages will help deaf people become integrated into society and gain access to justice, education and employment.

6.        The Assembly acknowledges the importance of a detailed study of requirements, necessarily preceding the framing of any policy on sign languages. It stresses the need to involve users of these languages in the process.

7.        The Assembly observes that a number of member states have introduced programmes in support of sign languages. Although all experience a shortage of sign language interpreters, this demonstrates the strength of demand and the positive and inclusive social benefits such services provide.

8.        The Assembly takes the view that official recognition of sign languages will facilitate the training, recruitment and retention of more interpreters.

9.        For the above reasons, and in the knowledge that only action at European level will afford a solution to this problem, the Assembly recommends that the Committee of Ministers devise a specific legal instrument on the rights of sign language users and accordingly:

i.       define clear goals to be achieved, exact deadlines to be met, and resources and methods to be used, founded on a full study of requirements with the mandatory participation of associations representing the users of these languages;

ii.       consider drafting a protocol to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages incorporating sign languages into the Charter among the non-territorial minority languages.

10.        The Assembly also recommends that the Committee of Ministers encourage member states to:

i. give the sign languages used in their territory formal recognition;

ii. train sign language interpreters and sign-language tutors;

iii. give education in sign languages to the deaf;

iv. train teachers, in preparation for working with deaf and hearing-impaired children, in sign languages;

v. broadcast television programmes in sign languages, and make sign language subtitling of programmes transmitted in spoken language a general practice;

vi. give the right to inform the deaf and the hearing-impaired about the use of sign languages;

vii. utilise the new technologies and make them available to the deaf;

viii. include sign languages as a valid academic qualification in mainstream secondary schools with equal status to other taught languages;

ix. grant the right to choose freely between oral and bilingual school systems;

x. subsidise the publication of instructive literature in sign languages.

II.       Explanatory memorandum

by Mr Bruce, Rapporteur

A.       Introduction

1.       The Assembly in Recommendation 1492 (2001), paragraph 12 xiii, asked that the Committee of Ministers "give the various sign languages utilised in Europe a protection similar to that afforded by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, possibly by means of the adoption of a recommendation to member states". Following a motion which I tabled and which was referred to the Committee, I was appointed Rapporteur. The Secretariat had prepared a memorandum in November 2001.

2.       On 6 December 2001, the participants in the Sign Languages Day of the European Union of the Deaf (the principal organisation upholding the rights of the deaf before the European institutions) passed a resolution calling on the Council of Europe and all its member states to accept the principle that sign languages fall within the remit of the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, thus recognising sign languages as minority or regional languages in their own right, on an equal footing with the other spoken minority or regional languages, so that sign language users may enjoy the same protection as that afforded by the Charter to other regional or minority language users.

3. On 12 June 2002, after a year and a half had elapsed, the Committee of Ministers delivered its reply to the Assembly’s recommendation; regarding paragraph 12 xiii. of the Recommendation, the Committee of Ministers simply took note of the opinions from the Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Committee on the Rehabilitation and Integration of People with Disabilities. It emerges from the second opinion that, in the view of several national delegations, it should be possible to amend the Charter by means of an additional protocol on sign languages.

B.       Brief survey of sign languages in Europe

4. Sign languages are not universal. They evolve differently depending on the places where deaf people are found, and they may be subject to the same variations as would be expected of spoken languages. They are not derived from the languages spoken in a country. Thus, whereas the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States of America have English in common, each of these countries has an altogether separate sign language. On the contrary, Finnish sign language is derived from Swedish sign language, even though the spoken Finnish is not related to Swedish – thus deaf Finns understand deaf Swedes better than other Finns understand other Swedes. Nevertheless there is often a sense of understanding between users of different sign languages as they are all visual. Sign languages have all the characteristics of natural languages. They have their own vocabulary and their own grammatical rules. They have undergone a process of historical development in the same way as spoken languages. Regional, ethnic and even social variants occur in them. In short, sign languages are languages in their own right.

5.       The first written mention of sign language dates back to 1644 in the United Kingdom (in John Bulwer’s "Chirologia"). But France is where the introduction of collective teaching to the deaf in their language occurred at the instigation of Abbé de l’Epée in the late XVIIIth century. He had devised a system combining natural signs with figurative signs, a system that was developed by his pupils themselves.

6.       "Ethnologue"1 (a project run by SIL International (which formerly went by the name of "Summer Institute of Linguistics") has registered 114 sign languages in use throughout the world; there are thought to be 44 in Europe.

7.       There are no European statistics on the number of people using sign languages throughout the continent, and it is difficult to make an estimate. If the number of people born deaf in the total population is taken to be in a ratio of about one per thousand, and the number of deafened people to be three times that ratio, the European Union must contain some 1.6 million of them, with more than double that figure in the Council of Europe member States as a whole.

8.       As things now stand, several states have a national policy on sign languages, as acknowledged below. Despite two European Parliament resolutions in 1988 and 1998 stressing the distinctive identity of sign languages, there is no European Union policy on sign languages, or on minority languages for that matter. The European Year of Languages has changed nothing in this respect, which is the reason for the Day organised by the EUD. The sole Council of Europe contribution has been the above-mentioned Assembly recommendation.

9.       In its opinion of 1 June 2001 on the recommendation in question, the Committee of Experts of the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages objected that the Charter had not been “conceived to meet the specific needs of sign languages”, correctly observing that European sign languages were “not at present the subject of a special international instrument addressing their particular needs”; the Committee could nonetheless support any initiative aiming to promote and protect sign languages “through a separate instrument”. The Committee on the Rehabilitation and Integration of People with Disabilities (Partial Agreement) concurred with the Committee of Experts of the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

C.       “Sign languages and/or hearing aid?”: a viable alternative?10

10.       Where education is concerned, the debate between advocates of "auricular" solutions and supporters of teaching in sign language is still not ended. The former consider that deaf children ought not to use sign languages since this interferes with acquisition of the ability to speak and to lip-read. The Rapporteur can find no foundation for this, and moreover teaching by every available method of communication should at all events help the deaf acquire the rudiments of aural communication. The principal British teaching establishment for deaf pupils, "Mary Hare Grammar School" in Berkshire, is an establishment using strictly auditory/oral methods. When the head teacher tried to ban the use of BSL (British Sign Language) even outside lessons, he was compelled to revoke the decision owing to the many protests aroused by it.

11.       The experts generally agree that hearing aids cannot completely supplant sign languages. A study commissioned by the Committee on the Rehabilitation and Integration of People with Disabilities (Partial Agreement) (CD-P-RR)2, comparing policies and practices regarding cochlear implantation (to remedy deafness) in ten European states, concluded that in spite of the implants, pre-lingually deaf children would never become children with normal hearing, in the sense that even if they hear articulated sounds, they do not necessarily understand the spoken language. Children with cochlear implants would always be disadvantaged in the aural communication process, hence the importance of associating implantation with sign language learning and teaching.

D.       Legal position of sign languages in the Council of Europe member states

12.       Sign languages are still discriminated against in a number of countries. In fact, their status varies between countries. Often they are neither recognised nor respected. The Rapporteur has tried to obtain more information in a few selected countries.

13.       Finland is the country where the standard of protection of language has advanced furthest. The right to use sign language is set forth in Article 17 of the Constitution, although the law referred to therein has not been passed; however, measures have been taken to bring about an improvement in the situation of users of the sign languages employed in Finland. A Ministry of Justice working party delivered a report on the question in 1996, but the relevant government departments (Justice, Education and Social Affaires) have made definite moves to promote the use of sign languages at nursery school and higher levels and the production of teaching material in sign languages, and to secure the right to receive information (such as news broadcasting in sign languages).

14.       In Portugal, a law of 5 July 1999 classed as a general law of the Republic recognises and regulates the occupation of Portuguese sign language interpreter. Although certain information suggested that the rights of sign language users were enshrined in the Portuguese Constitution, I have not received confirmation of it.

15.       In the Czech Republic, the equality of sign language with other languages is proclaimed by law n° 155 of 11 June 1998. The law provides that sign language shall be the means of communication for the deaf in the Czech Republic. It further provides that the deaf are entitled to the use of sign language, to be educated by means of sign language, and to be taught it. The law also stipulates that in visits to medical practitioners, dealings with the administration and judicial procedure, deaf people are entitled to the provision of an interpreter without payment. Deaf students engaged in tertiary studies are also entitled to a non-paying interpretation service.

16.       In the Slovak Republic, Slovak sign language, though protected by law n°149 of 26 June 1995, which secures the right to use, receive instruction and be informed in it, is not recognised as a minority language. Its recognition as such was to be discussed this summer by cabinet. For the time being, the profession of sign language interpreter is not recognised, there being no corresponding university subject and, for a language to be a university subject it must have been recognised as a minority language. The law also secures to the deaf and hearing-impaired the right to interpretation into Slovak sign language where necessary, usually free of charge.

17.       Greece did not answer the question on the status of “Hellenic Sign Language”, but it appears to be recognised and protected.

18.       In the Netherlands there is no formal recognition of “Dutch Sign Language”, and it has no status in the eyes of the law. On the other hand, this sign language (DSL) is taught in schools for the deaf and catered for in interpreters’ vocational training; interpretation into and from sign language is available in courts, and in professional circles it may be prescribed that an interpreter be provided at the expense of the national insurance system. Contacts with a government department established that actions were in hand for the furtherance and application of the language, but remain vague and are apparently not pursued at the legislative level.

19.       I have been actively involved in the campaign for recognition of British sign language, as an outcome of which the Scottish Parliament debated a motion calling not only for recognition of the language by the United Kingdom but also basic education in sign language and awareness-raising about the problem of the deaf in Scottish school syllabi.

20.       BSL (British Sign Language), while not officially recognised, is nevertheless used in the media (although interpretation into sign language is more widespread). Despite its 200,000 users, BSL, like the sign languages of other countries, suffers from a severe shortage of interpreters (according to a study carried out on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions, there were 129 registered qualified interpreters and 132 registered trainees in the UK in 2001, for a deaf population estimated at between 28,000 and 70,0003).

21.       Most voluntary organisations for the deaf support BSL in the United Kingdom. The deaf community, though very dispersed and numerically small, is overwhelmingly in favour of official recognition of BSL.

E.       Deaf people’s difficulties in securing recognition of their rights

22.       The deaf are not entitled to education and employment on an equal footing with the non-hearing impaired, owing to the fact that their right and their need to communicate are largely disregarded. According to a survey carried out by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf recording the experiences of deaf people in the United Kingdom applying for Disability Living Allowance, almost 40 % of those who appealed against refusal felt the appeals panel was not deaf aware. More seriously, for those who had a medical assessment 76 % said it was difficult to communicate with the doctor. 63 % were not told of their right to communication support for their medical and one in five appellants attended their tribunal hearing without the necessary communication support. If BSL had been a recognised language, the interpreter’s fees would have been payable by the court.

23.       Some distressing cases concern the United Kingdom, where a person was remanded in custody for a week without being charged because it was impossible to find him an interpreter. Only this year, the Irish Minister for Education and Health raised an outcry by announcing that some deaf schools would not be included in a list of schools eligible to receive state funds by way of compensation to victims of sexual abuses, on the ground that deaf pupils were not compelled to enrol in these schools.

24.       Many deaf children are not secured the right to receive a bilingual education, that is in their country’s sign language and written language. In France there is a political will to recognise French sign language (LSF) at school by making it an examination subject and possibly an A level examination subject.

F.       Visit to two model states

25.       I visited Sweden and Finland, as the EUD had indicated that the best treatment of sign languages and most advanced research on sign languages is to be found there. A four-day visit has confirmed that these countries are far ahead, being home to Professor Bergman of Stockholm University, the first professor of sign languages, Mrs Kauppinen, Executive Director of the Finnish Federation for the Deaf (FAD) and President of the World Federation of the Deaf and Mr Jokinen, the Chairman of the FAD and Vice-President of the EUD.

26.       Sign languages are used in education and everyday life in both countries. Sign language has been a recognised language since 1981 in Sweden, where 8-10.000 deaf people use sign language. There is an absolute right to be taught in sign language, which is also used as the medium for teaching deaf pupils Swedish. I was shown the development of the curriculum, which could become a model for the way in which sign language can be used to teach home languages in other countries. In both Sweden and Finland parents have the right to free tuition. The law in Sweden provides for up to 240 hours of free sign language interpretation per year for deaf people and the country has 450 sign language interpreters. In Finland, where sign language is protected by the Constitution as a minority language, and with 5,000 having it is a mother tongue and 10,000 hearing people using it, Finnish municipalities are obliged to organise such services for people in need of such assistance. The law there allows for 120 hours of free sign language interpretation per year (240 for aurally and visually disabled persons) and there are 500 interpreters. Despite these figures, there is felt to be a lack of interpreters in Sweden and in Finland.

27.       Cochlear implants represent a recent substantial technological advance but are nevertheless an area of concern in both countries. They are seen more as a high-tech hearing aid by the deaf than as a ‘cure for deafness’. The deaf community expresses concern that deaf children could lose the opportunity to learn sign language, with use of this device leading to decreased competence in sign language as the first language. Indeed, the proportion of deaf students in universities is generally greater than that of hard of hearing, perhaps because the hard of hearing have less support. There is also a strong cultural feature to sign language – in both Sweden and Finland it is taught as a foreign language, with 10,000 learning it in each country as a second mother tongue, second language or foreign language to the positive benefit of deaf people using sign language as their first language. There is much frustration in the deaf community over recognition of sign language and culture – outside Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark there is a long way to go. In Sweden and Finland it is deemed that deaf people are an important minority whose rights should be protected and quality of life improved, even if a cost is involved.

G.        Conclusions and recommendations

28.       The progress achieved in the recognition of sign language remains slow. There are two types of obstacle to official recognition. The first is due to ignorance on the part of governments and legislators as to the role performed by sign language. The second stems from the mistaken view of the non-hearing impaired that a hearing aid is the solution to all problems of deafness, and that sign languages are universal. Recognition of these languages receives very little support from the public.

29.       Another reason often invoked by many countries is purportedly linked with the cost that official recognition of these languages would incur. State institutions controlled by the public sector should really afford access to these languages. In the United Kingdom, the government recently introduced an additional study grant for deaf students in higher education.

30.       However, successes are recorded in Europe. In Finland, many public service employees have been trained in the basics of sign language. Ireland and Denmark, the United Kingdom and Greece have sign language training programmes for teachers, and Portugal, France, Spain and Greece too have programmes aimed at professional staff wishing to work with the deaf, and these include sign language. In Greece, the first university department specialising in sign language for the education of deaf children has been set up. Sign language has been introduced into some schools in Portugal. In France, sign language interpretation is recognised as an occupational activity. Lastly, a movement in support of bilingual education is afoot in Denmark and the Netherlands.

31.        It is important that all these efforts should be acknowledged and carried over to the European context. The recommendations to be made relate to recognition of sign languages as regular languages with corresponding rights for the users, the right to free choice between oral or bilingual school systems, the introduction of sign languages as a communication channel in general and vocational education, and the adoption of practical measures for ensuring full participation by the minority of deaf people in the community.

32.       This will make it possible to achieve an increase in the number of interpreters and ease of access to public and private services, education, recreation and social activity, thereby making for significant enhancement of the quality of life and human rights for the deaf.


Programme of the Rapporteur's visit to Stockholm and Helsinki

9-12 December 2002


Monday 9 December 2002


Brita Bergman at Department of Sign Language, Institute of linguistics, Stockholm University, Frescati campus, Södra husen, House C, floor 3, Room C 363

09.05 - 10.00

Unit for Sign Language Interpretation, Stockholm University Thomas Ahron (room F 632)


10.30 - 11.45

Visit to Väddö Folk High School (Sign Language programs for parents of deaf children, Interpreter training). Director Björn Albihn, Anna Hein, Jonas Karlsson



Lunch at Restaurant Lantis with Kristina Svartholm (Vice-dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Professor in Swedish as a second language of the deaf, Department of Scandinavian Languages) and Brita Bergman


13.30 -14.15

Institute of Interpretation and Translation Studies (and interpreter training). Director Gunnar Lemhagen (Room F 603) and Karin Andrée-Heissenberger


15.00 - 16.00

National Board of Education, Ahlströmergatan 12 (at Kungsholmen). Director of Education Jan-Erik Östmar and Christer Degsell, expert

16.00 - 17.00

continued meeting with Mr Degsell


Tuesday 10 December 2002

09.00 – 11.00

11.00 - 11.30

Visit to the Manilla School, Special school for the deaf

Manillavägen 32-36 (at Djurgården). Åsa Helmersson (Kerstin Olsson, Harriet Björneheim)

Concluding meeting with Brita Bergman (at the Manilla School)


      [Place: The Light House]

16.30       Meeting with Ms Liisa Kauppinen, the Executive Director of the Finnish Association of the Deaf (FAD) and the President of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD)

17.00       Video conference with Mr Markku Jokinen, the Chairman of the Finnish Association of the Deaf and the Vice-President of the European Union of the Deaf (EUD)

18.00       The Culture Centre of the FAD (a short visit at the Library and the Deaf Museum) / Mrs Tiina Naukkarinen, Museum of the Deaf

18.30       TV interview by Ilkka Kilpeläinen, the Finnish Sign Language News, YLE (Finnish Television) at the Finnish Association of the Deaf

19.00        Dinner with Ms Liisa Kauppinen

Wednesday 11 december 2002

      [Place: The Light House]

09.00 - 10.00       The status of the sign language users in Finland / Ms Liisa Kauppinen

10.00 - 10.30        Sign language education services / Ms Pirkko Rytkönen, The Head of the Education Unit, FAD

10.30 - 11.00       Sign Language in Finland & different projects / Ms Päivi Lappi, the Head of the Sign Language Research Center

11.00 - 11.30       Sign language therapy services / Ms Pirjo Leino, Therapist (a video conference)

12.00        Lunch

13.00 - 13.30       ProSign Ltd / Ms Tarja Sandholm, the Executive Director

14.00 - 16.00       Inauguration of the Ainola Service Centre (service housing for deaf people with mental retardation)

19.30       Dinner with Mr. Markku Jokinen

Thursday 12 December 2002

10.30 – 11.30       Finnish Sign Language Dictionnary / Ms Anja Malm, Head of Research, FAD

12.00 – 13.00       Meeting with Ms Viveca Arrhenius, Senior Adviser, and Ms Aini Kimpimäki

Reporting committee: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights

Reference to committee: Doc 9156, Reference 2635 of 25 September 2001

Draft recommendation adopted unanimously by the Committee on 10 January 2003

Members of the Committee: Mr Lintner (Chairperson), Mr Magnusson, Mrs Gülek, Mr Marty (Vice-Chairpersons), Mr Akçali, Mr G. Aliyev (alternate: Mr R. Huseynov), Mr Andican, Mr Arabadjiev, Mr Arzilli, Mr Attard Montalto, Mr Barquero Vázquez, Mr Berisha, Mr Bindig, Mr Brecj, Mr Bruce, Mr Bulavinov, Mr Chaklein, Mrs Christmas-Møller, Mr Clerfayt, Mr Contestabile, Mr Daly, Mr Davis, Mr Dees, Mr Dimas, Mrs Domingues, Mr Engeset, Mrs Err, Mr Fedorov, Mrs Frimansdóttir, Mr Frunda, Mr Guardans, Mr Gustafsson, Mrs Hajiyeva, Mr Holovaty (alternate: Mr Shybko), Mr Jansson, Mr Jaskiernia, Mr Jurgens, Mr Kastanidis, Mr Kelemen, Mr S. Kovalev, Mr Kresák, Mr Kroll, Mr Kroupa (alternate: Mr Mezihorak), Mr Kucheida, Mrs Libane (alternate: Mr Cilevics), Mr Lippelt, Mr Manzella, Mrs Markovic-Dimova, Mr Martins, Mr Mas Torres, Mr Masson, Mr McNamara, Mr Meelak, Mrs Nabholz-Haidegger, Mr Nachbar, Mr Olteanu, Mrs Pasternak, Mr Pellicini (alternate: Mr Budin), Mr Penchev, Mr Piscitello, Mr Poroshenko, Mrs Postoica, Mr Pourgourides, Mr Ransdorf, Mr Rochebloine, Mr Rustamyan, Mr Skrabalo, Mr Solé Tura (alternate: Mrs Lopez-Gonzalez), Mr Spindelegger, Mr Stankevic, Mr Stoica, Mrs Stoisits, Mrs Süssmuth, Mr Symonenko, Mr Tabajdi, Mrs Tevdoradze, Mr Tokić, Mr Vanoost, Mr Wilkinson (alternate: Mr Lloyd), Mrs Wohlwend

N.B. The names of those members who were present at the meeting are printed in italics.

Secretaries to the Committee: Ms Coin, Ms Kleinsorge, Mr Ćupina, Mr Milner

1 Consult at the address:

2 “Cochlear implants in deaf children”, May 2001.

3 « The organisation and provision of British sign language/English interpeters in England, Scotland and Wales », David Brien, Richard Brown and Judith Collins, University of Durham, 2002.