This afternoon, the Finnish Parliament voted in favour of the ‘Sign Language Act’. Now the first thing you might think when you read this is ‘Wait a minute, didn’t they already have recognition legislation’? And you’re right. Finland has had constitutional recognition since 1995. Section 17 of the Constitution on the ‘Right to one’s language and culture’, which makes regulations for Finnish, Swedish, Sami and Romani also states that “the rights of persons using sign language and of persons in need of interpretation and translation aid owing to disability shall be guaranteed by an Act”.
The Sign Language Act which was passed today, is actually a natural consequence of that constitutional reference. The Finnish signing community was the only language group mentioned in the constitution (apart from the Roma), which didn’t yet have designated language legislation (Finnish and Swedish are regulated in the Language Act, and Sami in the Sami Language Act). Special legislation already contains numerous provisions on sign language, but they are scattered and their interpretation is discretionary. Also, the absence of language legislation meant that the legislative status of sign language (and signers) in Finland was not clear. This meant that, when devising new special legislation, Finnish signers were often not taken into consideration and that often, rights and services are only granted on the basis of signers’ assumed disability status.
The Sign Language Act is aimed at changing this. First of all, it defines sign language as Finnish Sign Language and Finland-Swedish Sign Language, the two sign languages used in Finland. The latter has only 300 signers left and no schools, and is included in the UNESCO list of endangered sign languages. The Act will hopefully assist in its much-needed revitalisation process. A signer is defined in the Act as a person “whose own language is sign language” – a definition open to include both deaf and hearing people, which is very innovative and indeed internationally very rare, as Markku Jokinen said in a statement published on the website of the Finnish Deaf Association today.
The main purpose of the Act is to promote the realization of the linguistic rights of signers as required by the Constitution and international human rights conventions (Finland is expected to ratify the UNCRPD soon, at last). Authorities (eg. courts, municipal authorities, bureaus of the Parliament etc.) must in their activities promote the opportunities of signers to use their own language and receive information in their own language (cfr. also UNCRPD Art. 21). The Act also intends to increase authorities’ awareness of signers as a linguistic and cultural group. The Act further re-establishes signers’ right (enshrined in special legislation) to receive teaching in their own language and in sign language as a subject, and their right to use sign language or interpretation and translation arranged by an authority.
The Act does not create any new rights, but rather aims to promote the linguistic rights signers already have, in practice, and clarifies their status as a language and cultural group. Its intention is comparable to the intentions behind the development of the UNCRPD, which doesn’t create any new rights for persons with disabilities either, but frames, specifies, reinforces and aims to realize their human rights into practice.
In addition to the Act itself, the Parliament also approved a statement from the Constitutional Committee, which calls for the Government to take measures to ensure the linguistic rights of signers in such a way as intended through legislation. This is a step towards ensuring deaf children and their parent’s right to sign language which is not explicitly in the Act itself but which was nevertheless seen as very important by both the Education and Culture Committee and the Constitutional Committee.
Challenges now will be proper monitoring and supervision of the Act, implementing it within Finland’s current strict economic situation with limited resources for municipalities, and continuing the work and developing the legislation further in the next government’s term (eg. set up an Advisory Board for Sign Language Affairs).
The Sign Language Act passed today may not be a sufficient step to guarantee signers’ linguistic and cultural rights, but it definitely is one in the right direction.
Congratulations to the Finnish Deaf Association, the Finland-Swedish Deaf Association and the signing community in Finland!
(Update: for an academic perspective, see my 2016 article in Language Policy.)