31 March 2003
Protection of sign languages in the member states
Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee
Rapporteur : Baroness Knight, United Kingdom, European Democratic Group
I. Conclusions of the Committee
1. The Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee shares with the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights the desire to help improve life for disadvantaged people and welcomes the report on the protection of sign languages in member states.
2. The Committee calls on the Council of Europe to approach this topic with care and sensitivity. It should bear in mind that sign languages are not recognized as a complete and natural means of communication by all experts and that there is no universal agreement on this by the deaf people themselves.
3. The Committee recommends undertaking a detailed study in order to clarify outstanding issues, before developing legal instruments. Furthermore it should be explained more clearly in the report why there is a need for a legal instrument and what sort of legal instrument is envisaged.
4. In view of the lack of trained interpreters consideration should be given to harmonising the sign languages used in Europe.
5. More emphasis should be placed on the financial consequences of the proposed recommendations. Although it might be possible that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, the report should address the need for a cost assessment.
II. Explanatory memorandum by Baroness Knight
1. There are areas where the report would have greater force if it were clearer in its language and more specific as to precisely why changes are desirable, and exactly what those changes should be.
2. For instance, the title “Protection of sign languages in the member states” would be puzzling to many who might be sympathetic, because how and why those languages need protection is not made clear. If the objective is to protect users of sign languages, then perhaps a better title would be “Protection of the use of sign language”.
3. It would be helpful if it could be explained why the report calls for a legal instrument. What sort of a legal instrument is envisaged ? To what extent are deaf people denied to have any court case against them explained in a way they can understand ? What other human rights are denied to deaf people because of the lack of interpreters ?
4. The report identifies 44 different sign languages in use in Europe. This implies that there would have to be a large number of interpreters trained. Would there be any advantage in seeking, over a feasible period of time, to harmonise the use of sign languages in Europe? It would mean that the deaf person would have a useful advantage over the person who could speak French, but not German; Spanish but not Italian. It would also ensure that a sign-language interpreter could work anywhere in Europe.
5. There is a recommendation that the deaf should be given education in sign languages. In which countries is this not done ? What evidence is there that teachers preparing to work with deaf and hearing-impaired children are not trained to use sign language ?
6. Mr Bruce’s own experience has led him to place in the list of recommendations that sign languages are a “complete means of communication for the deaf” but that recommendation is not supported by other experts in the field. Later in his report he comments that the Mary Hare Grammar School for the Deaf, perhaps the most respected of all such schools in Britain, disagrees. This is a subject on which experts differ, and indeed there is no universal agreement from the deaf people themselves.
7. Mr Malcolm Bruce’s report has many important things to say, and with his personal experience of caring for his daughter, who is deaf, those comments carry extra weight. He has taken great trouble to seek information from a number of sources. He infers that some countries felt there might be a problem over the financial cost of initiating the improvements suggested in his report, but that is the only mention of what well may be a very real difficulty. A reference to the need for cost assessments to be made should be included in the recommendation. It might be that the advantages would outweigh the disadvantages.
8. According to the European Union of the Deaf (EUD) for example, it costs a lot more to exclude deaf people from society, in terms of social welfare benefits and unemployment benefits. If deaf people were guaranteed the right to use sign language in all spheres of life, then they might become more productive members of society, who could contribute back to society by paying taxes and having purchasing power.
9. In conclusion, the Committee of Ministers and the relevant intergovernmental sectors of the Council of Europe would be wise to approach the whole question with great care, sensitivity and detailed study, always bearing in mind that our whole aim is to improve life for disadvantaged people.
III. Amendments proposed to the draft recommendation contained in Doc. 9738 presented by Baroness Knight (United Kingdom, EDG) on behalf of the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee
Amendment No. 1
In paragraph 9 of the draft recommendation, before sub-paragraph i, insert a new sub-paragraph as follows: “instruct the relevant bodies of the Council of Europe to undertake a preparatory study in consultation with national experts and representatives of the Deaf community in order to clarify outstanding issues in regard to the protection of the use of sign language;”
Amendment No. 2
In paragraph 10 at the end of the sub-paragraph ix, add the following : “, after receiving full and balanced information;”
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Reporting committee: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights (Doc. 9738)
Committee for opinion: Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee
Reference to committee: Doc. 9156, Reference No. 2635 of 25.09.01
Opinion approved by the committee on 1 April 2003
Committee Secretariat: Mr Newman, Mrs Meunier, Mrs Karanjac and Mr Chahbazian
1 See Doc. 9738