Maartje De Meulder: What sign language recognition means for Deaf people in Denmark

Posted on May 15, 2014

On Tuesday, the Danish Parliament unanimously recognized Danish Sign Language (Dansk Tegnsprog) by passing Law 61 amending the law on the Danish Language Council (Dansk Sprognævn).

The law was initiated by Lars Barfoed of the Conservative People’s Party. Denmark already has a form of implicit recognition with several pieces of legislation mentioning sign language but up till today there was no formal legal recognition.

Basically, the recognition means that a Danish Sign Language Council (Dansk Tegnsprogsråd) will be established resorting under the Danish Language Council. The Danish Sign Language Council will consist of 5 members, appointed by the Minister of Culture for 4 years (with possibility of reappointment): 2 representatives from the Danish Language Council, one from the Danish Deaf Association (DDL), one representative from the Education and Research Ministry and one from the Ministry of Children, Equality, Integration and Social Condition.

2012-12-25 at 15-19-31The main task of the Danish Sign Language Council will be to research and document Danish Sign Language and provide information and guidance on the language. This will be done by the secretariat which will have one full-time staff and a yearly budget of about 130.000 euros (1 million Danish kr.).

With this recognition, Denmark places itself in what seems to be a Nordic tradition. Norwegian Sign Language is part of the Norwegian Language Council, Swedish Sign Language of the Swedish Language Council, Iceland has a separate Icelandic Sign Language Council and Finnish Sign Language and Finland-Swedish Sign Language resort under the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland (KOTUS).

This recognition is an important step for Denmark. At first sight it seems a rather ‘limited’ recognition granting no substantial rights to the language nor its users. It is.

But by adopting this law, Danish Sign Language is recognized as a language in Denmark, on equal footing with Danish. This is no small thing in a country without any language legislation. This made it very hard for the Danish Deaf Association to find a way to recognize Danish Sign Language.

On top of this, the last few years Denmark has lost much of its former appeal as one of the ‘great’ Nordic countries which lead by example. Denmark became associated with “99% of all deaf children receiving a cochlear implant”, “closure of deaf schools” and “auditory verbal therapy”. It became a (sometimes caricatural) illustration of how things are changing for the worse. Recognition of Danish Sign Language seemed a far-fetched dream.

But the dream came true, and while this law will probably not have the power to change the alarming situation in Denmark, it can give a boost of confidence to the Danish Deaf people that things can change for the better, and that there is a brighter future ahead. Let’s hope it is a first step towards more positive changes.

So, tillykke to the Danish Deaf Association and the Danish Deaf community!

Maartje De Meulder is a deaf PhD researcher from Belgium currently affiliated to the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. Her research explores what it does and could mean to legally recognize Sign Language People’s languages, cultures, and identities, and what the potential barriers are in achieving this legislation. Prior to starting her research she worked as an advocate for the Flemish Deaf Association for five years, and was involved in the successful recognition of Flemish Sign Language in 2006. 


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