It’s a huge victory, but it’s also a small first step in a process that’s going to take some time. The recognition of Dutch Sign Language as a language takes a long, very long time, according to Corrie Tijsseling and Eva Westerhoff. And yet, now that there is a majority in the House of Representatives to recognise sign language, they are further advanced than ever.
Just before the debate, Tijsseling and Westerhoff are tense. The two have been working hard for the recognition of the language for years. “I don’t know if I dare to watch”, says Tijsseling laughing. Westerhoff: “I am especially curious about what language they use. I hope that they have listened the past few years, that nobody talks about ‘deaf language’ for example”
Because only a language for the deaf is not Dutch Sign Language (NGT), emphasizes the duo. “I was with four colleagues the other day, some of whom were deaf and three of them spoke sign language,” says Tijsseling. “For the fourth colleague we had to send an interpreter, because he couldn’t gesture. Who has a disability then”, she asks with a smile.
What they mean: NGT should be seen as a language in which someone can express themselves, just like French or German are languages.
Sign language is part of a culture, it expresses an identity, Tijsseling argues. “You can use it to enjoy theatre, poetry. NGT is a separate world, a paradise. You can see it as two worlds: one hearing and one with gestures.”
For both hearing and deaf people
That language makes the world a bigger place and recognition of it is essential for the emancipation of the community, they say. So they are not just deaf people, says Tijsseling. “Think also of the hearing child of deaf parents. Or the hearing parents of a deaf child. They will also have to learn.”
The debate on the law that NGT recognises as a language is unique in several respects. The public stands are occupied for the first time since the Kamergebouw closed its doors early in the corona crisis. In the stands there are two interpreters who translate for the dozens of deaf and hard of hearing people present. There are also interpreters on the live stream of the debate.
Chamber chairman Khadija Arib opens the debate as she accompanies her spoken words with NGT gestures. It brings shining faces to the audience present.
Since 2013 we are working on a bill. After years of pressure from the deaf community, the bill has been submitted by the Christian Union, PvdA and D66. Other parties also support the bill.
In it, the Dutch Sign Language is officially designated as the language if the law is eventually officially passed. Frisian went through a similar procedure earlier. This now allows you to take an oath or vow in Frisian, for example. It also obliges the government to convert important communication to that language.
“The law stipulates that NGT must be taken seriously,” says Tijsseling. The government has already done a lot of good, says Westerhoff. “But with this law we get a legal right. We get the opportunity to use the freedom of language to the full. That will make your world much bigger, that’s wonderful.”
The fact that the discussion of the law coincides with the hype that has arisen around NGT interpreter Irma Sluis creates a double feeling among the two women. “When I first saw an interpreter standing next to the prime minister in the corona crisis, and I saw my language on television, I felt tears running,” Westerhoff says. “Goosebumps.”
There was also a disadvantage. “Irma is a top interpreter”, Westerhoff emphasizes. “But that the hype is now about the gestures, that they’re laughing about that, that’s no fun at all. That hurts, but people don’t realise that. I’m sorry for her, she doesn’t want this either.”
At the same time the hype does contribute to visibility, recognizes Tijsseling. And that visibility is important. “Sometimes we grumble,” she says, jokingly. “After all, this is and remains the Netherlands
The battle for sign language recognition has been going on for 30 years now. The two women will continue until the law is passed. “It is the final step towards full emancipation.”