September 23rd is the United Nation’s international day for sign language. This is a day set aside to recognize the importance of sign language for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and fulfilling its core promise of leaving no one behind. It is also an opportunity to support and protect the Linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all sign language users.
Sign language is a system of hand and body movements representing words, used by and to a group of people who cannot hear or talk. It is also a complex language that employs signs made with the hands and other movements, including facial expressions and postures of the body.
The exact origin of this form of communication is not readily known. There several schools of thoughts expressed on when and where it started. Some school of thought believe that it dates back to the bible where the Angel Gabriel had rendered Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist deaf and he had to use his hands to communicate.
Others believe that it dates back to 16th century. According to National Geographic, the first person credited with the creation of a formal form of sign language was a 16th-century Spanish monk called Pedro Ponce de Leon. The idea to communicate in this form was not entirely a new one. Before this period, Native Americans had used hand gestures to communicate among other tribes and to facilitate trade with the Europeans. Furthermore, monks had also used sign language to convey messages during their daily periods of silence.
It is interesting to note that sign language is not universal. There are various forms of it. British Sign Language (BSL) differs notably from American Sign Language. The language also differs from culture to culture. Most societies develop and improvised to suit their lingual needs.
This innovative way of communication caught on in Africa in 1962. Andrew Foster, an American Sign Language educator is believed to have started sigh language education in many parts of Africa. He was also responsible for the introduction of Ghana Sign Language. The Ghanaian Sign Language is the official national sign language for deaf people in Ghana. In addition to the national Ghanaian Sign Language, there are other local and indigenous sigh languages such as Admorobe Sign Language and Nanabin Sign Language that also used to communicate.
According to The World Federation For Sign Language, there are approximately 72 million deaf people worldwide. More than 80% of them live in developing countries. Collectively, they use more than 300 different sign languages.
One would think that these statistics would be enough motivation for members of society to pick- up sign language as an additional language. Sadly, this is not the case. Most people who are hearing and speech impaired are often denied needed services due to the fact that people can’t effectively communicate in sign language. Speech and hearing impaired people have been wrongly diagnosed simply because health workers could not effectively understand sign language. This practice needs to change. There is a need for members of society to learn how to sign if we want to include people who are affected by speech and hearing disabilities.
As we commemorate the international day for sign language, let us endeavour to make learning sign language more than a bucket list or a New Year resolution. It should be part of our formal education. But until it is added as an academic curriculum, individually on our own should make it part of our everyday lingual proficiency.