It’s here, at last! Legal recognition of Sign Language of the Netherlands

[Dutch version.]

This afternoon, the Senate of the Dutch Parliament voted about the Law recognition Sign Language of the Netherlands. It was approved unanimously. With this law, Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT, Nederlandse Gebarentaal) becomes an official language in the Netherlands, next to Dutch and Frisian. Massive congratulations to the Dutch sign language community and especially to everyone who persisted and advocated for this recognition!

The law was proposed by members of the PvdA (Labour Party), CU (Christian Union, a socially conservative party) and D66 (the Democrats) and is a result of over 30-years long advocacy by the main deaf association Dovenschap, during the last years specifically by Corrie Tijsseling and Eva Westerhoff.

There aren’t many European countries who needed to wait this long for legal recognition of their national sign language(s), so the long awaited legal recognition is more than just a significant milestone. During the last 30 years the question of the legal recognition of NGT has repeatedly been raised, but the choice was always made to approach this recognition pragmatically, and to focus on the societal and political aspects of the recognition.  And with success, because there are quite a lot of provisions for deaf people and NGT in the Netherlands that are very well regulated, in legislation and in policy. But up to today, the legal part of the recognition was missing. That amounts to not recognizing deaf people, and without legal recognition NGT’s position would be more vulnerable. For a significant part of the deaf community in the Netherlands NGT is an important language, and the proposers of the law explicitly state that medical-technological innovations did not change this fact.

In the early 2000s, the Dutch government presented standardization of the basic and educational lexicon of NGT as a precondition for its legal recognition. This standardization has significantly impacted language planning for NGT, but the government never kept its promise. It also was a really strange request, actually – a similar precondition has never been put forward for the legal recognition of spoken regional minority languages in the Netherlands such as Frisian or Lower Saxon.

But now it’s there at last, the long-awaited legal recognition of NGT.

So, what’s in the law?

The Law recognition NGT has fourteen articles and three important key points.

  1. The core of the law is legal recognition of NGT as an official language in the Netherlands, next to Dutch and Frisian (recognized in the Law on the use of Frisian since 2013). This legal recognition entails that deaf people have the right to use NGT, and receive information in NGT.

  2. Next to the (symbolic) legal recognition of NGT as an official language, the law aims to promote the use of NGT. The law proposers see the main responsibility for this with the Minister of Interior and Royal Affairs, because they are responsible for language policy in the Netherlands and for governmental communication. This Minister will be tasked with pursuing a policy aimed at promoting the use of NGT at public speeches of the cabinet, governmental communication and judicial communication. The Minister has to report about this policy to the House of Representatives every two years. So what does this mean?
    • Public speeches of the cabinet: for example the weekly press conference of the Prime Minister (Minister-President)
    • Governmental communication is about communication between the government and its citizens. This could mean that deaf people can use NGT at the department of Civil Affairs of their municipality. The law also specifically mentions the need to provide emergency communication in NGT ‘as soon as possible’. This is especially relevant after the lack of information in NGT during the Utrecht shootings in 2019, and with the on-going COVID-19 crisis.
    • Judicial-societal communication. Here the law in Article 5 makes the explicit provision to take an oath in NGT. Articles 6 and 7 are about the provision to use NGT in judicial settings such as during an interrogation (both parties!) and during civil and criminal trials.

  3. The law provides in the establishment of an NGT Advisory Board with five members. This Board will advise the Minister about the policy to pursue to promote the use of NGT. In practice, the board will be hosted under the Dutch Sign Centre, that will also nominate candidates (to be approved by the Minister). The Sign Centre’s remit will thus be expanded.

Financial consequences

What are the financial consequences of the law? Not that clear at the moment but the Explanatory Memorandum states this:

  • The five members of the Advisory Board will get a fee (regulated in a general law on advisory boards).
  • The Advisory Board will also get small funding for their legal assignment, an estimated 50.000 EUR to start with.
  • To be able to execute its advisory role, he Advisory Board also will need to make sure research is being carried out into the status of NGT, and it will need ‘limited funding’ for this.
  • The law proposers also expect ‘limited costs’ related to interpreting of public speeches of the cabinet and emergency communication.

What is new/special about the Law recognition NGT?

  • De wet uses the term ‘gebarentaligen’ (a Dutch concept that is hard to translate into English but if you know German it’s similar to ‘gebärdensprachig’ or if you know Finnish it’s similar to ‘viittomakielinen’). The law defines ‘gebarentaligen’ as ‘people who master NGT’. This might be informed by Flemish legislation on recognition of VGT which also uses ‘gebarentaligen’. In some articles of the Dutch law there is explicit mention of deaf gebarentaligen (e.g. Article 4 about emergency communication in NGT) while other articles just say ‘gebarentaligen’ (e.g. article 5 about the rigth to take an oath in NGT). This entails that this right is also conferred to hearing gebarentaligen.

  • There are some similarities with the Law on the Use of Frisian (you might notice this Law has ‘use’ in the title and not ‘recognition’, which is quite specific to sign language legislation). For example the Frisian law also provides the right to take an oath in Frisian (even mentioning the specific Frisian words that should be used) and also establishes an Advisory Board for Frisian with a similar remit.

  • Article 10 of the Law recognition NGT states it is important that deaf gebarentaligen be informed, in NGT, about the law. The Minister has to announce in the Staatscourant (digital government bulletin where all new laws are announced) that a version in NGT is provided on the government’s website. It’s interesting that the NGT version of the law will not be published in the government bulletin but only on the website. This might be due to technical limitations?

  • It is good to see that this law, with the words of the proposers, is about the recognition of NGT an sich, and not about sign language interpreting services. At the same time, like with other sign language laws, for a lot of provisions it is implied that these rights will need to be implemented through sign language interpreting services.  But this is not the focus of the law. Indeed, in practice a lot of provisions are already very well regulated. Like the proposers say, this law is about deaf people who have the right to use NGT. Form this right follows that interpreting services are necessary. The Dutch law is similar to the Finnish Sign Language Act in this respect. This Act also aims to strengthen existing legislation by anchoring the rights of sign language users. 

  • NGT Advisory Board. In Flanders we have a VGT Advisory Committee since 2008, with a task similar to the Dutch board. I have been a member of this committee for over 10 years and from this experience I have a few take-aways for the Dutch representatives:

    • An important difference between the Dutch and the Flemish laws is that the Flemish law has explicit provisions about deaf to hearing ratio, and required profiles of members. Of course, expertise is not just ‘deaf’ or ‘hearing’, but given the legacy of clinical and educational professionals as de facto managers of institutional language policy affecting deaf people, being deaf or hearing *is* an important point in some ways. In the Flemish committee minimum half of the (minimum ten and maximum fifteen) members must be deaf gebarentaligen. If there are not enough candidates after the first call, a second call has to be made. Obviously, a committee won’t be successful just because it has a majority of deaf members. It is much more complex than that and there are a lot of other issues to consider (no space to discuss these here but see the chapter I wrote with Joseph Murray and Rachel McKee in the references below).

    • Another point to consider is the language of meetings. It seems straightforward that this would be NGT, but when the Flemish committee started we had a hard time convincing some hearing members to sign (despite them knowing VGT). They claimed it was not their mother tongue, they were not proficient in VGT or found it disturbing to hear the interpreters at the same time. Deaf members continued to request for a change in language policy, later also supported by some hearing members, and after two years (!), the committee decided that VGT would be the language of meetings, and that being able to attend meetings in VGT was a prerequisite for membership. This practice of using VGT has been maintained, although interpreters are still present at all meetings because the department secretary does not sign. Dual-language operation (with some members signing and other members speaking and thus all members depending on sign language interpreters – capable or not) can create a dynamic of participation inequity, particularly if deaf members are outnumbered and spoken language interaction norms are allowed to prevail.

    • Visibility of the committee is another issue – after ten years interaction is still primarily unidirectional with the committee issuing advisory reports to the government – reports that often have minimal impact.

  • Like always when a new sign language recognition law is adopted, everyone involved has high expectations of it, and rightly so. At my university (University of Applied Sciences Utrecht) there is a lot of hope that the Law will lead to an increase in students applying to the NGT interpreter, NGT teacher, or Deaf Studies program. Of course, this remains to be seen, and will need time. Sign language interpreting services are already well-regulated, the law does not change anything about this. New, well-trained interpreters, will continue to be needed. The most important issue will be active implementation of the Law. If for example NGT becomes an optional language course in primary or secondary education in the Netherlands, more NGT teachers will be needed. Here an important task is reserved for the Advisory Board, who will advise the Minister on the policy to pursue.

All in all, and compared to other European sign language legislation: a strong law with a lot of potential. Excited to see how this story will continue!

More reading?

Process towards recognition of NGT, up to 2017, by key players involved in the process: Cokart, R., Schermer, T., Tijsseling, C., & Westerhoff, E. (2019). In pursuit of legal recognition of Sign Language of the Netherlands. In M. De Meulder, J.J. Murray, & R. McKee (eds.) The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages. Advocacy and Outcomes Around the World. Multilingual Matters.

Governmental advisory boards for sign languages: De Meulder, M., Murray, J. J., & McKee, R. (2019). Epilogue: Claiming Multiple Positionalities: Lessons from the First Two Decades of Sign Language Recognition. In M. De Meulder, J. J. Murray, & R. McKee (Eds.), The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages: Advocacy and Outcomes Around the World (pp. 301-312). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

NGT planning: Schermer, T. (2012). Sign Language Planning in the Netherlands between 1980 and 2010. Sign Language Studies, 12(4), 467-493.


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