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Improved labour market access for sign language users

Improved labour market access for sign language users

| Text: Bjørn Lønnum Andreassen, photo: Jon Hauge, Scanpix

Earlier this year the Norwegian parliament passed a new language act that states that Norway is multilingual. For the first time, Norwegian sign language was recognised as the national sign language, equal to spoken and written Norwegian as a language and cultural expression.

“I also wish to congratulate Norwegian sign language users. Although linguists have known for a while that Norwegian sign language is a language in its own right, and not a special teaching tool, today it is official. The language act says Norwegian sign language is equal to Norwegian both as a cultural expression and as a language system,” said Minister for Culture Amid Q Raja as parliament debated the new legislation.

But only time will tell what the real, additional benefits will be for sign language users, say experts at the Signo diaconal foundation.   

Hanna Cederström is an advisor at Signo, which organises labour market measures for deaf people and people with reduced hearing. She believes the legislation will make public schemes more accessible for deaf people. It will also make things better for foreign-language immigrants who are learning the Norwegian sign language.

Hanna Cederström

“Many think sign language is an international language, but in fact, it isn’t. Each country has its own sign language. Sign language has its own grammar. That is why many immigrants struggle to learn Norwegian sign language. When we work with deaf people who speak a foreign language, we can adapt our language to their needs since it is so visual," explains Cederström.

“Since we as advisors are deaf ourselves, we know how to adapt communication for people who speak a different language. Our job is to find out what works rather than what doesn’t.” 

Several foreign language speakers who have come to Norway had worked for many years in the construction industry in their home countries. Some do not manage to learn Norwegian, but they can still do a good job.

Free for the employer

“In Norway, employers can use sign language interpreters free of charge, while other Nordic countries have other solutions. It is important to us in Norway to maintain this right. The new language act which makes sign language equal can help strengthen the right to free interpretation,” believes Cederström.

According to Signo, they are Norway’s largest employer of deaf people. Hege Farnes Hildrum is the Secretary-General and explains that having so many deaf employees creates an unusually good language environment.

“Even if the law does not directly strengthen the right for individuals, it might happen indirectly as the authorities have been given greater responsibility. We might see better access to interpreters, education and sign language teaching. All in all, this might better prepare people with deafness for the labour market. That is why we are very optimistic about what the new act will mean,” says Hildrum. 

Hege Hildrum

The foundation that she leads is not-for-profit and diaconal and its mission statement is to offer services to deaf people. It also offers services for people with reduced hearing and deaf-blind people, and it all is based on Norwegian sign language. 

Great recognition 

What the new act will mean in practice is not yet certain, but it is very important that sign language is now recognised as an official language, she continues. 

“The authorities must take responsibility to protect and promote the Norwegian sign language on an equal footing with ordinary Norwegian. That's what is new in this act. Sign language is now equal with Norwegian as a linguistic and cultural expression."

For deaf people in Norway, this recognition is very important. Their language has the same status as other Norwegian languages. 

Without meaning?

The new legislation was issued for consultation, and Hildrum says many asked for something a bit more concrete.  

“Because what does it really mean that public bodies must protect and promote sign language? We will be watching what the future brings.”  

Hildrum argues that the legislation is important because it protects the kinds of services Signo can offer. 

The challenge of two dimensions 

Corona has also had an impact on sign languages because the language looks different on a screen. 

“Sign language becomes two-dimensional on a screen, while when people meet it is three-dimensional. Those who want to learn sign language get much better training when meeting in person rather than on a screen. But beyond that, deaf people are actually really good at communicating on a screen,” she says enthusiastically. Many deaf people use video calls.

A “new” tool

Cederström tells us about another relatively new type of technology. Cochleaimplantat (CI) is a device which consists of an electrode that is implanted in the cochlea and an external device that is connected to the electrode. The external device works as a kind of hearing aid that catches sound and sends it on to the cochlea. From there, the signals are sent to the brain where they are interpreted.

“CI is a fantastic aid, but it is important to remember that it is only an aid. More and more children with CIs are well integrated into schools, but not all get good sign language training. Things usually go very well for the first few years, but after a while, things start to get lost. This could turn into a problem later when the students start further secondary education for instance. They then realise they need better sign language skills,” says Cederström.

“Employers are often very sceptical, but many are very positively surprised when they get to know deaf employees,” she says.

Better numbers are needed

The employment rate among deaf people in Norway is lower than for the rest of the population, believe the experts at Signo.

“But we have no firm numbers. All we have is a Danish survey from 12 years ago. We no longer use this,” says Hildrum, who used to work for NAV, the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration. She knows that solid statistics are always needed to properly deal with a challenge.

“But then you need to know that this is a challenge. Historically we know that many deaf people end up on disability benefits. But over the years more and more young people have got an education and have completely different opportunities in the labour market.” 

Cederström confirms that many deaf people have traditionally had practical occupations because they did not manage to follow the teacher in school.   

“Many have been deaf on their own and have not got much out of their education. They have ended up in practical occupations. Today, many deaf people get a higher education because they have had access to interpreters and other aids that they need. We are on the right path. The new language act will definitely strengthen sign language.”

A long fight for an equal language

Having sign language recognised as an equal langue to the other national languages in Norway has been a long fight. The picture above is from a demonstration in 2007.


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