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How does the EU promote sign languages?

In reference to sign languages, citizens contact the European Parliament requesting information on the status of sign languages at EU level, the actions taken to promote it and how its interpretation works in the EU institutions.

Monika Wisniewska / Fotolia

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the Convention), ratified by the European Union on 23 December 2010, recognises the freedom of expression and opinion and access to information of persons with disabilities, including by accepting and facilitating the use of sign languages (Article 21).

In the field of education, by virtue of having ratified the convention, the EU should take appropriate measures to facilitate the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community (Article 24).

EP resolution on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The European Parliament adopted a resolution on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Parliament, inter alia, stressed that ‘persons with disabilities need to have access to information and communication in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities, including sign languages […]’ and it called, therefore, ‘on the Commission to take the necessary measures to enforce the implementation of EU legislation on access to information and communication’.

EP resolution on sign languages and professional sign language interpreters

The resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 23 November 2016 on sign languages and professional sign language interpreters inter-alia stresses the need for qualified and professional sign language interpreters which should be based on the official recognition of national and regional sign language(s) in Member States and within EU institutions. Furthermore, the Parliament recognises that sign language interpretation constitutes a professional service requiring appropriate remuneration.

The resolution also calls on the Member States to encourage the learning of sign language in the same way as foreign languages and emphasises that sign language should be included in educational curricula in order to raise awareness and increase the use of sign language.

EU institutions’ communication to citizens

The European Parliament, in its resolution of 14 April 2016 on Parliament’s estimates of revenue and expenditure for the financial year 2017, stated that it ‘backs the introduction of international sign language interpretation for all plenary debates so that they at least are genuinely accessible to all European citizens’.

The European Commission, in its reply of 23 March 2016 to a parliamentary question on sign language, stated that ‘there is a trend at EU level to make sign languages more visible at events. Through its Lifelong Learning Programme (2007-13), the Commission financed several projects aimed at making communication easier for the deaf and hard of hearing. The Commission also financed a pilot project of the European Union of the Deaf on potential technological solutions to improve independent communication and interaction between the deaf or hard of hearing and EU institutions [INSIGN Project]. The Commission is also working to make its buildings and websites more accessible. Its interpreting service provides sign language interpretation on request for the Commission. Concerning television coverage via Europe by Satellite [EbS], many events are broadcasted live which makes it difficult to include sign language. However for the corporate video productions, the Commission is aiming at a more systematic use of subtitling to enable the deaf and hard of hearing viewers to follow Commission videos.’

To enable deaf and hard of hearing persons participating in Commission’s meetings to gain access to information, sign-language interpreting is likewise practised at this institution.

Request for sign languages as EU official language

The European Union has 24 official languages. In order for a language to acquire the status of official language in accordance with the rules governing the use of languages at the EU institutions, a Member State must request that status for it, and its request must be approved by the Council, acting unanimously by means of regulations (Article 342 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).

The European Commission underlined, in its answer of 22 February 2016 to a parliamentary question, that ‘although the language policy of Member States is their exclusive competence, the European Commission encourages recognition of sign languages and supports their dissemination through its programmes for education and training.’

Further information

The study ‘The protection role of the Committee on Petitions in the context of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ published in October 2016 by the EP Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs Policy Department, and the in-depth analysis ‘The obligations of the EU public administration under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ published in March 2016 by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), might be of interest.

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