Over 1,000 sign language users descend on Brussels

EU Multilinguialism conference at European Parliament

John A Hay MBE reports on the recent “Multilingualism and Equal Rights in the European Union: the role of sign language” conference in Brussels

Wednesday 28th September 2016 will be forever remembered as an historic day at the European Parliament when over 1,000 sign language users from all over Europe, congregated for the “Multilingualism and Equal Rights in the European Union: the role of sign language” conference.

The purpose of the afternoon-long conference, which was hosted by Helga Stevens, the MEP from Belgium, was to demand better recognition of sign language, and to raise the awareness of how sign language interpreters are often an afterthought compared with spoken language interpretation across many public institutions, including the EU.

Helga Stevens, herself a deaf sign language user and also a campaigner for the rights of deaf and disabled people, explained that the conference “was to showcase sign languages as part of Europe’s multicultural and multilingual heritage while at the same time raising awareness of the heterogeneous situation of sign language interpreters, which is in stark contrast to the regulated spoken interpreting profession.”

When asked about her purpose of holding the conference, Helga responded that “my aim was to show that when talking about multilingualism and language diversity, this should include sign languages as well as spoken languages. Both are equal. In addition, when talking about interpreters and interpretation, we should not forget sign language interpreters who are well trained and are equally professional. Just like spoken language interpreters, they want to deliver quality and serve their clients as best as they can. We have achieved these aims: 146 interpreters, both sign and spoken, worked at the conference. 56 languages were used: 24 official spoken languages and 31 EU sign languages. And 1 non-EU sign language: Japanese.”

The debating chamber of the European Parliament, better known as the Hemicycle which is familiar to our TV viewers, was really full – it was a surreal experience for me and many others to be able to sit on MEPs’ comfortable chairs for the duration of four and half hours.

The attendees were able to follow the proceedings of the conference as these were interpreted simultaneously into sign languages as well as all official spoken languages. The participants were seated in blocks set up in accordance to their sign languages and in the case of the British contingent, was serviced by two BSL interpreters, Jemina Napier and Rob Skinner. Interestingly, there were teams of three spoken language interpreters for each of 24 official EU languages, working in booths around the Hemicycle while groups had to make do with one or two SL interpreters and in very few cases, three.

Some 60 MEPs, mostly drawn from Helga’s political party, European Conservatives and Reformists Group, were in attendance lending their support for the further embellishment of the sign language resolutions previously made by the European Parliament in 1988 and 1998, with an idea of introducing a draft resolution on sign language and professional sign language interpreters, which will be presented to the European Parliament’s plenary later this year.

Helga Stevens addressing participants

So ably convened by Helga, the conference opened with welcome speeches made by leading representatives from the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Disability Forum. To the delight of the 51 strong British contingent, Syed Kamall MEP, chair of Helga’s political group, opened his speech giving his name in BSL – yes, using the two-handed manual alphabet, rather than the continental one-handed one! Syed expressed his familial interest in the conference since he has a Deaf brother thus giving overwhelming support to Helga’s proposal of introducing the draft resolution.

There were three panels of professionals, mostly academics, from many countries including one from the UK, giving 10 minute addresses, mostly reinforcing the essence of raising the status of sign languages; the effective implementation of sign language recognition; the raising of the standard of interpreter training; and the monitoring of the interpreting qualifications throughout Europe thus enabling the parity. One of these papers was jointly presented by Dr Christopher Stone of the University of Wolverhampton and Christian Rathmann, a Deaf Professor of Sign Linguistics at the University of Hamburg.

The résumé of the paper by Christopher Stone and Christian Rathmann: We reflected on our experience as academic colleagues, one deaf and one hearing. We focused on the EU’s responsibilities to ensure no ‘unintended consequences’ of their established schemes like Erasmus+. Deaf people are currently unable to study or work across Europe because of difficulties in learning other European sign languages and different levels of access to interpreters in member states. Finally, we drew delegates attention to the ‘designs project’, focussing on deaf job seekers.

While the recognition of sign languages has steadily increased and improved at national level throughout the member states of the EU, sign language interpreters are still lagging behind in many Member States compared to spoken language interpreters, as ably reinforced by Maya De Wit, the former President of the European Forum of Sign Languages Interpreters (EFSLI) in her short address.

The last hour of the conference was devoted to a debate on the resolution on sign languages and professional sign language interpreting with interventions of support made by some 24 MEPs, including those from the UK, such as the soon-to-be-retired Richard Howitt, Vicky Ford and Geoffrey Van Orden.

Statement made by Vicky Ford MEP, East England: it was an honour to speak at the conference. Helga Stevens has been a great force for good in the European Parliament and championed accessibility in a digital age. I chair Parliament’s committee for the Internal Market and Consumer Protection and the European Conservative Reformist working group on digital issues.

I have helped to negotiate new agreements on making sure public sector websites are accessible to all across Europe and we are working on new guidelines for public sector services apps too.  We are now working on the European accessibility act which intends to make sure that many more goods and services will be accessible across Europe. There is a great deal of work to do to make sure that this really delivers.

Statement of Support from Geoffrey Van Orden MBE MEP, East England: I have been a Member here for 17 years but this is the only time I have felt emotionally moved walking into this Chamber. I welcome you all and particularly look forward to meeting those from my own country, the United Kingdom.

I would like to congratulate my ECR colleague Helga Stevens, the interpreters, assistants and all of those that have helped with the administration of today’s huge and significant event.

It is impossible for those of us with full hearing to understand the challenges faced by the deaf and hard of hearing. 

I was reminded of this very strongly in 2014 when I attended a Christmas carol service at my local Cathedral, Chelmsford, organised by the British Royal Association for the Deaf. The Cathedral was full and it was a joyous and emotional occasion. 

In Essex alone, one of the six English counties that I represent, there are over 3000 deaf people and around 155,000 people with a moderate or severe hearing impairment. In the last decade in the UK there have been advances made in understanding the needs of the differently abled.

But today’s event is an opportunity to send out a strong message about the work that still needs to be done to address the need for properly qualified sign language interpreters, to improve accessibility and to promote the learning of sign languages. 

It was really heartening for the audience when Geoffrey concluded his speech with this amazing statement: – “In January we will be electing a new President of the European Parliament. And wouldn’t it send out a great signal if someone like Helga were to become that President? Why don’t you all write to your MEPs and promote her candidacy?”. It is really good to see a Parliamentarian and others recognising the ability of a deaf person to lead the debating chamber. So would you, BDNews readers, please do your lobbying with your MEPs lending their support for Helga’s nomination for the prestigious position as President of the European Parliament! Watch out for news from Brussels in January!

David Hay, a Briton working with European Union of the Deaf in Brussels, on Helga Stevens’ possible Presidential candidacy: In the past three years, I got to witness two deaf MEPs in action in the European Parliament. Also, last week I got to see 31 sign languages being used at the same time and I thought these achievements already exceed expectations. But clearly it doesn’t end there with Helga being considered as a candidate to become the President of the European Parliament. If that happens, the “deafies” could not ask for more, especially for Europe. I am honoured to work in the media sector reporting about Deaf leaders taking the floor, using their sign languages and thus giving sign language and deaf rights much more visibility. We “gotta” be grateful for this term, it probably won’t happen again for a long time. Embrace Deaf Power! Helga for President!

When asked for her feelings after playing host to the extremely successful conference, Helga responded “Very happy and very proud. It was just amazing to see so many people from all over Europe, Japan and Nigeria attending the conference. And to see so many (sign) languages at “work’ in one place at the hemicycle of the European Parliament. It gave me an unbelievable great feeling! The MEPs who attended the conference all told me they were equally amazed and impressed by the conference! Huge thanks to my wonderful #teamHelga for making this happen!”

The short summary of the resolution: The resolution focuses on sign languages and professional sign language interpreters, and is a follow-up to two European Parliament resolutions on sign languages from 1988 and 1998. It stresses that access includes access to information and communication, both on and offline. It further highlights that qualified and professional sign language interpreters are in high demand but must receive formal training and be subject to an official accreditation and quality control system. Recognition of sign languages at national and regional level is crucial in complementing the efforts at European level.

Helga explained exclusively to me on how the conference resolution can successfully be implemented in member states of the EU. She said that “the resolution aims at ensuring that the European Parliament functions as a best practice example when it comes to sign language interpretation, accessibility and reasonable accommodation in the workplace. Once adopted, policymakers and organisations, like BDA, can then use the text as a tool for furthering the rights of sign language users and interpreters at national and regional level.”

As a seasonal attendee of international conferences for more than 30 years, I found this conference a unique experience as every single presenter used their own language, whether it be Sign or spoken, when delivering their speeches and papers rather than having to retort to using International Signs which is NOT a language after all. Another thing that had made an impact upon me was that one MEP from the Republic of Ireland stated that she battled successfully to have her rights to use Erse (Gaelic Irish) in the European Parliament thus giving us an empathy of seeing minority languages, including sign languages being recognised and being used in public institutions. A dramatic episode occurred made when one of the MEPs brought her young Deaf daughter onto the podium, and made a plea that sign languages must be introduced to all deaf children and their families throughout Europe.