Second International Conference on the Linguistic Rights of the Deaf

by: Susan Gregory 

This conference was held in Moscow in May 2014, and followed the first conference on this topic also held in Moscow which took place in May 2007. It was organised by all Russian Society of the Deaf on behalf of the World Federation of the Deaf. It was very well attended and there were 285 participants representing 40 countries.

It was very hot during the conference week with temperatures in the high 20s and 30s. Participants were relieved that the conference centre itself had very effective air conditioning, although the centre itself was some distance away from the participants’ hotel and the journey between the two could be very uncomfortable.

The main themes of this conference were:

  1. The linguistic rights of the deaf
  2. Sign language in education and work
  3. Linguistics of signed languages
  4. Issuesof sign language interpreting

As seems traditional with conferences Russia, it began with the welcome from city dignitaries and representatives of Russian Federation Administration, as well as Board members of the World Federation of the Deaf and leaders of National Associations of the Deaf and this took most of the first morning.

As one might expect, the topic receiving the most attention was the linguistic rights of deaf people. In all, 50 countries have given official recognition to sign language as one of the languages of their country. However, as many papers described, although this has happened, this has made little difference to the lives of deaf people. Some speakers drew attention to the fact that many countries had also endorsed the UN policy on disability, ‘The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities’ (CRPD) which had been published in December 2006 and specifically mentions ‘Recognizing and promoting the use of sign languages’

A number of reasons were suggested as to why this had not made a difference for deaf people including lack of understanding of the role of sign language for deaf people and cost.  One paper argued very clearly that it is not enough to demand rights but it is important to set out clearly the ways in which rights can be achieved.

The education papers mostly focussed on bilingual education and, while recognising its importance for deaf children, differed in the view of how successful this had been academically or what the long term future would be.

It was a very packed programme with up to five papers being packed into an hour and a half slot. Sometimes this was frustrating as there was not time for questions or comments on what were often interesting or controversial papers. However as the organisers pointed out, there is always a balance to be achieved between covering many areas in presentations or discussion.

Overall the conference ran very smoothly despite the numbers involved and the different language and communication requirements of participants.   The languages of the conference were Russian, Russian sign language, English and international sign.  However many more informal arrangements could be seen in the conference hall. I observed English being translated into German Sign Language, and two or three people using deaf blind communication with individual deaf blind people.

One of the things I personally enjoyed about the conference was to opportunity to meet up with old friends, both pupils and teachers. Anna Komarova was there, of course, taking a major role in ensuring the smooth running of the conference. The other teachers from School 65 and the nursery groups were Tanya Davidenko, Tonya Shikhova, Lena Silianova, and Nadia Chaushian who all gave papers and   Irina Limina, who was there as a Russian sign language interpreter. Most of the teachers are still involved with School 65, the original sign bilingual school in Moscow and Tonya Shikhova is now a deputy head there. I was delighted to meet two ex-pupils; Dima who went through the nursery programme supported by Signs of Russia, who is now taking a professional course in photography and building up his own business, and Lena Lapenkova (pictured) who is occupied with her four children who are also deaf.

The conference ended, as all good conferences do with a banquet, though this was on a boat and included a five hour cruise down the Moskva River giving time to discuss issues arising from the conference and to relax.

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