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Is Sign Language becoming more accessible?

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Most people would agree that learning another language is a goal or aspiration of theirs, perhaps in order to further their career, to take on as a hobby or even for the purposes of starting afresh abroad. But what about learning a new language in order to better embrace certain members of society?

Over 800,000 people in the UK are “severely or profoundly deaf”; furthermore, it is believed that by 2031 there will be 14.5 million people in the UK with a hearing impairment. There are approximately 70 million deaf people around the world, all from a variety of cultural backgrounds; it is for reasons like this that Gestuno (International Sign Language), which unifies the variants of sign languages, was created at the first World Congress of the WFD (World Federation of the Deaf). It consists of a standardized system of international gestures and is often used at events across the globe.

The majority of countries, however, have their own sign languages which vary in dialect and accent. Similar to spoken languages, they can be categorized into families: for example, the langue des signes française family (LSF) includes Irish and American Sign Language, whereas Australian Sign Language belongs to the British Sign Language family (BSL). Although two hearing impaired individuals coming from different sign language backgrounds can converse, the meaning and gestures will differ and this will have an influence on the effectiveness of the dialogue. The Ethnologue, an archive of the world’s known living languages, currently lists 138 different sign languages, although it is widely agreed that there are far more sign languages that are not on record.

With such substantial numbers, it is no wonder that social movements such as Jade Chapman’s Let Sign Shine petition to get Sign Language taught within schools, are fast gaining momentum. America is slowly getting up to speed, as shown by the heart-warming story that hit the headlines over the Christmas period, “Santa Learns Sign Language to Communicate with Deaf Child”, which consequently made the young girl’s Christmas that bit more special. There are also American institutions such as Citrus Hill High School, California, which now offer ASL as a foreign language course.

What is the motivation for championing the teaching of Sign Language? Each individual has their own reasons; however, for educational institutions and organizations such as the World Federation of the Deaf, the aim is to provide a better quality of life for those with hearing impairments and one way of doing so is to encourage people to collectively be of service to their needs and requirements.

However, recent advancements in technology could be the solution to bridging the gap between those who do, and those who do not have hearing impairments, sooner than we could have imagined. MotionSavvy UNI, a new tablet in the making, incorporates Leap Motion’s gesture-sensing technology to translate spoken language into visual, on-screen text and a deaf user’s signing into audible, spoken-aloud text.

So it would seem that language barriers are being broken down every day and the channels of communication, irrespective of language variations, are being made clearer and more accessible. It is exciting to imagine what the future will hold: with tech-savvy applications giving us lots of opportunities to learn Sign Language.

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