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Deaf activism

The activism of deaf associations and related interest groups in the last decades has led to an increased perception of the deaf community and sign language at the society level. Typically, the official recognition of sign languages as well as their inclusion in the education of deaf children are among the central demands of the deaf communities and related interest groups. In some countries, political concessions have been made regarding the official status of sign languages, and their inclusion in education and service areas, upon grass-roots pressure. This bottom-up model of change is characteristic also of the developments pertaining to the recognition of other linguistic minorities groups (Garcia et al. 2006: 38). While this process is similar in many Western countries, Yang’s (2008) review of the history of the use of Chinese Sign language (CSL) in China reveals a different chronology of the official recognition of this language and its users and a greater involvement of deaf educators at different points in time in the language planning process.

Historically, the development toward a gradual self-assertion of deaf individuals as members of a linguistic minority as of the late 20th century is tied to the insights obtained in linguistic research on sign languages, on the one hand, and the sociopolitical developments toward the empowerment of linguistic minorities, on the other hand.

If the emergence of Nation States had gone along with a widespread suppression of regional languages and the establishment of a monolingual policy and rhetoric in many countries, it was the discourse about human and group rights, emerging in the 1950s (at the time of the Civil Rights movement in the USA) that provided the impetus for linguistic minorities’ claims for recognition of their linguistic rights. The development toward a socio-cultural (or socio-anthropological) view of deafness and related demands for the legal recognition of sign languages and their users as members of linguistic minorities needs to be understood against the backdrop of the changing socio-political climate concerning minority language groups. Indeed, in a portrayal of the “awakening” of the deaf community in Flanders, De Clerck (2007: 9) describes how the Flemish Federation of the Deaf (Fevlado) organised deaf awareness courses, with a crucial component of the courses consisting in introducing the deaf participants into “(...) a rhetoric of equal opportunities, rights, participation, oppression, deaf culture, emancipation, integration, etc.”

The second aspect worth mentioning concerns the internationalisation of the Deaf movement, which is reflected in notions such as Deaf World, Deaf Way and the more recent concept of Global Deafhood, explained in section It is interesting to note that the concept of a supra-national Deaf community has been the result of a grass-roots movement. That is, it was never imposed top-down.

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