Can We Hear Each Other?

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There are about 70 million deaf people in the World. But what we do actually know about them? What do we know about their every day problems and problem of the status of deaf community? Our contributor Mia Comic plunged in this topic on example of Serbia. Don’t miss checking out this interesting and deep longread.

European Parliament made a Resolution on Sign Languages for Deaf People in 1988. Due to the lack of progress made, ten years later – a new resolution was adopted.

According to the report that was published by Council Of Europe, the second resolution represents a new, improved version of the first one. Here are some of the crucial points of these two resolutions:

1. There must be an official recognition of the sign language used by deaf people in each member state.

2. Sign language interpreting has to be recognized as a profession (trainings and employment programs)

3. Broadcasting media must provide translation into sign language, or at least subtitles, of television news programs, those of political interest (especially elections) and, as far as possible, of cultural and general interest programs. Minimum levels of provision of sign language interpretation, sub-titling and teletext for programs aimed at adults and children – must be defined. There should be legislation introduced to ensure this right.

4. Welfare benefits, health and employment are produced using sign languages on video for the use of the deaf community.

5. EU funding programs in the field of education and employment training including training of sign language tutors and interpreters must be ensured.

6. All EU programs must be accessible to deaf people.

In 2003, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Recommendation 1598 on the protection of sign languages in the member states of the Council of Europe.

Serbia is not an EU country, but it is a candidate and a member of the Council of Europe (since 2003). How can it be that Serbia is so far away from European standards regarding the status of the Deaf community?

Serbia has not yet adopted the law regarding the use of Serbian sign language, although its making began in 2009. There are numerous types of discrimination of the Deaf community in Serbia. Every form of discrimination is inadmissible, but if we have to point out the one that is most alarming, we would have to say this: the media are not adapted to the needs of the Deaf community, and being informed is their guaranteed right.

We have discussed the main issues regarding the status of the Deaf community in Serbia with the chief secretary of the Organization of Deaf in Novi Sad – Mirko Knežević, as well as with his colleagues Nina Baranovski and Milica Maglovski.

There are approximately 1500 deaf (or hearing impaired) people in Novi Sad. In Serbia, the number of deaf reaches around 200.000 (which is an incomparably high number compared to the most EU countries). In the past 10 years, this type of sensory disability was considered a taboo. This has a lot to do with the mentality of the society, namely prejudices and fear of the unknown. The lack of the financial support is a great issue, but the lack of the will of people to support the inclusion process – that is the main problem.

It is interesting that both ms Baranovski and ms Maglovski are children of deaf parents, while mr Knežević is a hearing impaired person. They have all experienced what it means to be a part of the Deaf community.

Being a hearing child of deaf parents was not easy: you were constantly faced with mockery of others. „There is a lack of system that would provide a solution on how to unite these two communities. There is resistance, but not only from the side of hearing people. We have grown apart from each other and that is the main problem, it is simply wrong.“ – said ms Baranovski.. Both ms Baranovski and ms Maglovski agreed that the level of consciousness regarding the problems of the Deaf community is infamously low. „The goverment has its own list of priorities and we are not on it.“ – said ms Maglovski. It all comes down to personal connections and contacts, which is a shameful fact. It is the general problem of our institutional system, where lobbying has precedence over quality and actual need.

„We have made our appeal to the Ombudsman, because we feel this is a violation of human rights. It all comes down to money. We do not ask for much, we ask for respect – for the Deaf community and for us as translators. Being a translator is my life vocation and I have to make a living out of it. We communicate through a bad dialogue box with the authorities. In the newest draft of the law, the goverment pointed out that institutions are not obligated to pay a fee to translators. They set a concealed kind of ultimatum for us: either we will do it for free or the deaf will not be informed. They just don’t care.“ – said ms Baranovski.

In Denmark, for example – there was a project that lasted for three and a half years (2001-2003): within this time frame, deaf people had the right to sign language interpretation free of charge in situations where they previously had to pay themselves.

When it comes to subpoenas, a translator is obligated to come to the court and provide interpreter services. A translator gets a fee that is 6000 Serbian dinars (around 50 euros). Ms Maglovski says that they feel a lack of respect from the authorities: „They do not follow the procedure. They often inform us about some trial the day before. We have to leave everything we were doing, rearrange our schedules in order to go to the trial. We can receive a penalty that is around 100.000 Serbian dinars (around 800 euros) if we do not show up. The hypocrisy reaches climax given the fact that sometimes we wait over a year for our fees.“

Ms Baranovski pointed out that there is an ethical code translators must hold on to: „Our job as a translator is only to translate words from Serbian language to Serbian sign language, and vice versa. But the problem is when we are forced into taking the role of an advocate. The educational system in Serbia does not offer the same standard for hearing people and the people from Deaf community. For example – in Novi Sad, there used to be a seperate class in one elementary school. However, due to the lack of educated translators, the teacher taught deaf children abbreviated syllabus. So, a hearing child will know much more after finished school, compared to a deaf child. The pressure lies down on their parents: they have to be well organized and work with their kids additionally at home. It is an eternal struggle. Also, there is a class in a specialized school (for children with mental developmental difficulties). This is also a bad solution because deaf children do not have mental difficulties, they just have a physical disability. The syllabus here is also shortened and children who finished this school cannot continue with their education, they can only do some craft jobs. Inclusive education system exists far more in theory than in actual practice. Because of that, deaf people are far less educated than hearing people. That is why they get scared when facing the law, they do not know how to stand up for themselves or to explain calmly what happened. They often end up illiterate. They do not know their rights, so that is why translators are frequently caught up in a mediatory role. “ – explained ms Baranovski.

Norway, for example, is light years ahead: in 1990, the government has established a Sign Language Act. In the following years, the Education Act has also been established, which makes reference to Norwegian Sign Language as deaf people’s first language. Therefore, bilingual education has been recognized. Plus, Norwegian Sign Language is a subject at university for both deaf and hearing people.

It is important to integrate deaf people in the society. Luckily, there are people that managed to stand up for themselves, said Ms Maglovski: „From children that are registred here, in our organization, there are three of them that are regular students in a Medical high school, two of them that are regular students in Art high school and two of them in Economic high school. Sure, it is harder for them to follow lessons, but they are not giving up. They have friends, they communicate with others as much as possible and live their life completely normal. I am proud to say that we have several students enrolled in the Academy of Arts. Setting deaf children into regular schools is the best solution, but we have to train the teaching staff in order to provide them with what they need. The problem is that there is a very small number of hearing people that know the sign language.“

In most of the EU countries, there is an established system for trainings and educators. For example, in Czech Republic, there are Courses of Czech Sign Language offered by a number of organizations of deaf people and several organizations of interpreters for deaf people; in Finland, the basic diploma in Finnish Sign language instruction started in autumn 2001. There are numerous examples.

In Serbia, you cannot formaly pursue a career in becoming an interpreter and translator of sign language. Many years ago, the Ministry of Justice organized trainings for translators, for court needs. There are only around 10 people in Serbia that got their life long licence this way.

There is also a quick, intense language course in Vrnjačka banja organized by the province, that lasts for a week. If you manage to finish to course successfully, you earn a certificate. But ms Baranovski questions the value of this certificate: „I doubt that you can fully master the sign language in a week. This is just one of the ways the goverment officially fulfills its duty towards the Deaf community. I do not think it is the right way to educate our future translators. Even if you manage to master the vocabulary, that does not make you a translator. It takes practice and it is not the same as in the other languages, especially when it comes to simultaneous translation.“

Serbian sign language is not visible in the law, and therefore it is hard to finance and organize trainings and education for future translators and personal assistants. Having more people engaged is the only way to increase the standard of quality of the Deaf community. Considering that we all comunicate via language, it is clear how deaf are ostracized from the society.

When it comes to media, there are only several public broadcasters that are considering the needs of the Deaf community, but that is not enough. Deaf should have an equal access to information as the hearing community. Only the National TV (RTS) and a few local TV stations have adapted their program to deaf people, and that is only when it comes to news reports and general meetings. Political campaigns were translated for the first time in 2012. Whereas in Belgium, for example, specialized TV-series which are aimed at providing the hearing community with a better understanding of deaf people and their sign language. That is very important in the process of inclusion.

If there is not enough number of translators, at least there could be some subtitles displayed.

In addition to the fact that they are being denied the right to be well informed, deaf people are extremely discriminated when it comes to emergency cases. Given the fact that they cannot hear or speak, they cannot call emergency services (ambulance, police or fire department). For example, if a person has a heart attack, he or she cannot call the ambulance, but they have to text someone from the hearing community in order to get help. This problem would be easily solved if every emergency service had dispatchers with mobile phones that would communicate to persons in need via sms texts. Let’s take Austria as a good example: the government has provided telephone amplifiers for hearing impaired persons and no telephone charges for deaf persons with a specific telephone set. Aids for communication are possible for people with sensory disabilities.

When it comes to leisure and activites of the deaf community, ms Baranovski said: „Youngsters are not really interested in anything. Some of them participate in a hip-hop dance school and in the mime school we have established. It is amazing to see how they dance to music even tough they cannot hear. They just follow the instructed rythm a teacher gives them through a gesture. We have also organized activities for older people and women, mostly art workshops.“

We have talked to mr Knežević, a former wrestling champion, in order to get more information regarding sport activities within the community. „In the year 2013., in Sofia, there was a Deaflympics (olympic games for the deaf) organized. However, in Serbia, athletes and sportspeople from the Deaf community are not in the same range as the hearing ones, no matter how good they are. For example, we cannot get sport pensions and we have to cover our own costs, which is not the case with the hearing sportspeople. It is implied that expenses are supposed to be covered by the host of the event. According to the Sports Federation of Serbia, deaf athletes have the right to receive a scholarship. But, with no explainations, the grant is reduced by 30%, compared to the one that hearing athletes get.“ – said mr Knežević.

When it comes to the support of the authorities, mr Knežević says it is just a formal support, which exists only on paper: „Yes, they have offered me free use of sport facilities, such as the swimming pool or the bowling alley. But they said we can use it only at particular time of day, for example at 11 am, which is absurd. How can I arrange people to go to the swimming pool in the middle of a working day, when I myself am working and most of the kids are at school? I find this to be a blank and fake support. In Slovenia or Croatia, there is a better comunication with authorities. They have proved to be more successful in terms of the recognition of the population and obtaining funds.“ The organizations and the government of Lithuania, for example, have been working on the social integration of the disabled since the beginning of the nineties. They have recognized that the possibilities of getting different information through television, conferences, seminars, cultural and sport events will help the deaf to become more informed citizens.

It is important to work continuously in order to make our country a better place for the Deaf community in Serbia. „I cannot say that there is no progress at all, but it is all going very slowly. We need more support, not just from financial point of view. We need to fight in order to break prejudices and help each other.“ – said ms Maglovski.

The vicious circle that Serbia has fallen into shows a lack of will to improve things, from both communities.

„I was really upset to see how frustrated our members feel. Sometimes we even fall into a fight, they say they do not trust us anymore. That hurts me the most, because we are doing the best we can. The problem is in the Serbian institutions. The system creates a certain feeling in us, we feel helpless. Still, we don’t plan on giving up.” – said ms Baranovski.

There are numerous problems regarding the situation of Deaf community in Serbia. Novi Sad is just an example of the seriousness of the problem. A lot of work needs to be done in order to meet European standards. The first step towards the improvement would be solving the status of the sign language in the country, making it visible in the law.


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