Legal recognition of sign languages
The legal recognition of sign languages differs widely. In some countries, the national sign language is an official state language, whereas in others it has a protected status in certain areas such as education.
Extending legal recognition is one of the major concerns of the international Deaf community, however, symbolic recognition is no guarantee for an effective improvement of the life of sign language users, and it has been argued that sign languages should be recognized and supported not merely as an accommodation for the disabled, but as the communication medium of language communities.
- 1 Sign language status by state
- 1.1 Australia
- 1.2 Austria
- 1.3 Belgium
- 1.4 Brazil
- 1.5 Canada
- 1.6 Chile
- 1.7 Czech Republic
- 1.8 Denmark
- 1.9 European Union
- 1.10 Finland
- 1.11 Iceland
- 1.12 India
- 1.13 Ireland
- 1.14 Italy
- 1.15 Kenya
- 1.16 Macedonia
- 1.17 Mexico
- 1.18 Nepal
- 1.19 The Netherlands
- 1.20 New Zealand
- 1.21 Northern Ireland
- 1.22 Norway
- 1.23 Portugal
- 1.24 Russia
- 1.25 South Africa
- 1.26 Spain
- 1.27 Slovak Republic
- 1.28 Thailand
- 1.29 Turkey
- 1.30 Uganda
- 1.31 United States of America
- 1.32 Uruguay
- 1.33 Venezuela
- 1.34 Zimbabwe
- 2 Notes
- 3 Sources
Sign language status by state
Auslan was recognised by the Australian Government as a "community language other than English" and the preferred language of the Deaf community in policy statements in 1987 and 1991. This recognition does not ensure any provision of services in Auslan, but use of Auslan in Deaf education and provision of Auslan/English interpreters is becoming more common.
|“||It is now increasingly recognised that signing deaf people constitute a group like any other non-English speaking language group in Australia, with a distinct sub-culture recognised by shared history, social life and sense of identity, united and symbolised by fluency in Auslan, the principal means of communication within the Australian Deaf Community.||”|
—Australia's Language: The Australian Language and Literacy Policy (page 20). (Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1991)
Austrian Sign Language (Österreichische Gebärdensprache, ÖGS) was recognised by the Austrian Parliament in 2005. On 1 September 2005 the Austrian Constitution was amended to include a new article: „§8 (3) Die Österreichische Gebärdensprache ist als eigenständige Sprache anerkannt. Das Nähere bestimmen die Gesetze.“ ("Austrian Sign Language is recognised as independent language. The laws will determine the details.") For further information please contact the Austrian Deaf Association: http://www.oeglb.at
Krausneker, Verena (2005) Österreichs erste Minderheitensprache, in: STIMME von und für Minderheiten # 56 
Krausneker, Verena (2006) taubstumm bis gebärdensprachig. Die österreichische Gebärdensprachgemeinschaft aus soziolinguistischer Perspektive. Verlag Drava
- a cultural (symbolical) recognition and
- the foundation of a commission that will advise the Government of the French Community in all matters related to LSFB.
In Décret relatif à la reconnaissance de la langue des signes (Decree on the recognition of the sign language), from three possible legal interpretations of the term 'recognition', the following one was retained: "It concerns a symbolic recognition that goes hand in hand with a general measure, permitting every minister to take action in fields relative to his authority."
- a cultural (symbolical) recognition (see excerpt below),
- the foundation of a commission that will advise the Flemish government in all matters related to VGT and
- the structural funding of research and development of VGT.
This recognition was accelerated by the most successful petition ever with the Flemish Parliament and the presence of a Deaf member of parliament, Helga Stevens, and her interpreters in the Flemish Parliament.
|“||Cultural recognition entails that the Flemish Government recognises the Flemish Sign Language as the language of the Deaf Community in Flanders. This 'recognition' encompasses the following three meanings: (1) the Flemish Government acknowledges the correctness of the fact that the Flemish Sign Language is the language of the Deaf Community in Flanders, (2) the Flemish Government also accepts the existence of this language in the judicial domain and treats it accordingly and (3) the Flemish Government expresses its respect for this language.||”|
—Decreet houdende de erkenning van de Vlaamse Gebarentaal (Decree on the recognition of the Flemish Sign Language)
The Brazilian Sign Language (LIBRAS) was legally recognized in 2002; the law was regulated in 2005. The language must be taught as a part of the education and speech and language pathology curricula. LIBRAS teachers, instructors and translators are recognized professionals. Schools and health services must provide access ("include") to deaf people.
Section Fourteen of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifies that an accused person who does not understand the language in which his or her trial is carried out, or is deaf, is entitled to an interpreter.
Ontario recognised ASL and LSQ as a language in which the Deaf can be taught when it altered its Education Act in 1993. Ontario formally recognised ASL in 2007 attributing to it the rights of fellow minority languages.
Chilean Sign Language (LSCh), Chile enacted in Law No. 20,422, in 2010 in order to ensure the right to equality of opportunity for disabled people, negating any form of discrimination against them. And which recognizes sign language as the natural means of communication of the deaf community Ley 20422 BCN LEGISLACIÓN CHILENA, 2010
Czech Sign Language gained legal recognition as a human language with the passage of the Sign Language Law 155/1998 Sb ("Zákon o znakové řeči 155/1998 Sb") - see the legislation here (in Czech language).
As of May 13th 2014, Danish Sign Language gained legal recognition. The Danish Parliament established The Danish Sign Language Council "to devise principles and guidelines for the monitoring of the Danish sign language and offer advice and information on the Danish sign language."
The European Parliament unanimously approved a resolution about Deaf Sign Languages on June 17, 1988 (available online here). The resolution asks all member countries for recognition of their national sign languages as official languages of the Deaf.
|“||The European Parliament [...] calls on the Commission to make a proposal to the Council concerning official recognition of the sign language used by deaf people in each Member State.||”|
The EP issued another resolution in 1998 with more or less the same content as in 1988, (see RESOLUTION on sign languages for the deaf, Official Journal C 187, 18/07/1988 P. 0236 
Finnish Sign Language was recognised in the constitution in August 1995.
|“||Section 17 - Right to one's language and culture [...] The rights of persons using sign language and of persons in need of interpretation or translation aid owing to disability shall be guaranteed by an Act.||”|
Icelandic Sign Language was recognised by law in education in 2004.
|“||This National Curriculum Guide contains, for the first time, provisions on special Icelandic instruction for students whose mother tongue is not Icelandic. There are also new provisions on special Icelandic instruction for deaf and hearing-impaired pupils and sign-language instruction for the deaf. The objectives for Icelandic instruction of immigrants and the deaf and of sign-language instruction fall under the subject area of language arts (Icelandic) in compulsory school. [...]
Sign language is of basic importance for the development of language, personality and thinking of deaf children. For the deaf, sign language is the most important source of knowledge and their route to participation in Icelandic culture and the culture of the deaf. Sign language is of great importance for all school work and for the pupils’ life and work.
On May 27, 2011, the Icelandic Parliament unanimously approved a bill which recognises Icelandic Sign Language as an official minority language with constitutional rights and as the first language of the deaf people of Iceland.
There is no official recognition of Indian Sign Language.
There is no official recognition of Irish Sign Language yet. However, there have been calls to make Irish Sign Language the third official language in Ireland, after Irish and English, which would require an amendment to the constitution - which can only happen via a referendum. 
There is no official recognition of Italian Sign Language (Lingua dei Segni Italiana, LIS) yet. Those who oppose LIS recognition say this language is "grammarless," although, by definition, a language cannot be, in fact, grammarless. Several research on the matter have already shown that Italian Sign Language is a proper language.
The Constitution of Kenya recognises Kenya Sign Language and states that the state shall promote the development and use of Kenyan sign language. Sign language is recognised further in Article 120 (1) which states that the official languages of parliament are Kiswahili, English and Kenyan sign language and the business of parliament may be conducted in English, Kiswahili and Kenyan sign language.
The Macedonian sign language (Македонски знаковен јазик, Makedonski znakoven jazik) is officially recognized as "natural way of communication between the people". The language is regulated by a law, which allows students and every individual in Macedonia to study the language. Also, the law secures the right of interpreter for the students with special needs, and every other deaf person can request an interpreter, as well. Currently, there are more than 6.000 Macedonian citizens with deafness.
The Mexican Sign Language (LSM) was officially declared a "national language" in 2003, and it started being used in public deaf education thereafter. Before 2003, deaf education in the country was focused on oralism (speech and lipreading) with few schools conducting classes in LSM.
Although Nepali Sign Language has not yet been officially recognized as the mother tongue of Nepal's deaf population, legislation is underway which will bring Nepali law in line with the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These laws will recognize the rights of the deaf to use Nepali Sign Language have it used in education, in social life, in the legal sphere, etc., and this should thus lead to official governmental recognition of Nepali Sign Language on a par with the various spoken languages of Nepal.
The Sign Language of the Netherlands has not been recognised officially by law. There is some public funding for sign language projects.
|“||Part 2 cl 6: New Zealand Sign Language is declared to be an official language of New Zealand.||”|
In Northern Ireland, both British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language (but not Northern Ireland Sign Language) were recognised as official languages by the Northern Ireland Office, but they don't yet have the same status as the province's two official minority languages, Irish and Ulster-Scots.
Norwegian Sign Language is recognised by law in education.
|“||Art. 74, 2 (h): In implementing the education policy, the state shall be charged with protecting and developing Portuguese sign language, as an expression of culture and an instrument for access to education and equal opportunities.||”|
As an example, many shows (such as the news) in public channels (RTP) have one corner of the screen with a person translating what's being said into sign language.
The Russian Sign Language (Русский жестовый язык) has very limited legal recognition. In accordance with the Federal "Law on Protection of People with Disabilities" the sign language is considered a language used for inter-personal communication only, which means that no state support for the language is provided.
South African Sign Language is not specifically recognised as a Language of South Africa by the country's constitution, instead it contains the phrase "sign language" in the generic sense. There is a process underway in parliament to investigate the possibility of upgrading the status of SASL to become the country's 12th official language.
On June 28, 2007, Spanish and Catalan Sign Languages were recognised by the Spanish Parliament to be official languages in Spain. This recent legal development has opened a door to reinforced communication in the areas of healthcare, justice, education and MCM. So far, the Autonomous Communities of Catalonia, Andalusia, and Valencia had granted the use of sign languages to the Deaf. In the other Spanish regions no sign languages were so far recognised, and support in terms of sign language interpretation for Deaf persons has been minimal or confined by different budgets. As pointed out, there are three sign languages claimed by Deaf organisations: Spanish Sign Language, Catalan Sign Language (LSC) and Valencian Sign Language (LSPV), although some linguists consider these to be the same.
Although a regional law guarantees the presence of Catalan Sign Language since 1994 in all areas under the Catalan Government, such as education and media, until recently it was officially recognised the LSC in the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia of 2006.
The legal situation in Andalusia is similar to the one in Catalonia, where a regional Law guarantees the presence of the Spanish Sign Language (LSE) in all social scopes since 1998. Recently, a recognition of it is included in the reforming of their Statute of Autonomy. At the moment, Andalusia is the unique Community where LSE is recognised with regards to the rest of Spain. In any case, in linguistic terms, the LSE used there has a strong dialectal variation.
Until recently, Valencia had poor legal support for the Deaf. The approved 2006 Statute of Autonomy grants to Valencian Deaf their right to use Valencian Sign Language (LSPV or LSCV). In the Statute there is no mention about which sign language is telling, but Valencian Deaf entities usually refer it as Llengua de Signes en la Comunitat Valenciana.
|“||Article 13,4: The Generalitat shall grant the use of the own sign language of deaf persons, which shall have to be purposed in education, protection and respect.||”|
Slovak Sign Language was recognised in 1995 by law: "Zákon o posunkovej reči nepočujúcich osôb 149/1995 Sb" - the Law of the Sign Language of the Deaf 149/1995.
Thai Sign Language was acknowledged as "the national language of deaf people in Thailand" on 17 August 1999, in a resolution signed by the Permanent Secretary for Education on behalf of the Royal Thai Government that affirmed the rights of deaf people to learn this distinct sign language as their first language at home and in schools. According to a report by Charles Reilly (1999), "specific actions will be taken by the government, including hiring deaf people as teachers and instructors of sign language in deaf schools, and providing interpreters for deaf people in higher education."
There is currently no official recognition of the Turkish Sign Language, the de facto sign language in use by the Turkish deaf community.
On July 1, 2005, the Turkish Grand National Assembly enacted an updated Disability Law (No. 5378), which for the first time in Turkish law made references to sign language. Law no. 15 says that a sign language is to be used in the deaf education system, and law no. 30 says that sign language interpreting is to be provided to deaf people.  However, these laws are yet to be implemented (as of 2007), and it remains to be seen what form of sign language, if any, will be supported. There has been some discussion in parliament about "developing" a standardised sign language.
Turkey also has action plans for disability issues, such as the Employment of Disabled Persons Plan (2005–2010) and the Prevention of Discrimination Against Disabled Persons Plan (2006–2010).
On October 8, 1995, Uganda's national sign language was recognised in the country's new constitution, making Uganda Sign Language one of the few constitutionally recognised sign languages in the world (WFD News, April 1996). A Deaf signer (27-year-old Alex Ndeezi) was elected to parliament in 1996.
|“||XXIV (iii). The State shall [...] promote the development of a sign language for the deaf."||”|
United States of America
Many individual states have laws recognizing American Sign Language as a "foreign language"; some recognize ASL as a language of instruction in schools. A number of U.S. universities accept ASL credit to fulfill foreign language requirements.
Although there are no "official" languages in Uruguay, nevertheless, Lengua de Señas Uruguaya, or "LSU" (In English: "Uruguayan Sign Language"), was "recognized" as the language of deaf persons in 2001 by the law:
LEY No. 17.378. Reconócese a todos los effectos a la Lengua de Señas Uruguaya como la lengua natural de las personas sordas y de sus comunidades en todo el territorio de la Republica. 10 de Julio de 2001. Parlamento del Uruguay.
In the 2008 law 18.437 ("Ley General de Educación. 12 de Diciembre de 2008"), LSU is "considered" to be one of the mother tongues of Uruguayan citizens (along with Uruguayan Spanish and Uruguayan Portuguese. In the policy documents of the Comisión de Políticas Lingüísticas en la Educación Pública (the Public Education Language Policy Commission, which is part of the Administración Nacional de Educación Pública, ANEP) it is proposed that LSU would be the principal language of deaf education.
The various Zimbabwean sign languages, grouped together as "sign language", are recognised in the 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe as one of the sixteen "officially recognised languages of Zimbabwe".
- Sarah C. E. Batterbury. 2012. Language Policy 11:253–272.
- "... il s'agit d'une reconnaissance cadre assortie d'une mesure d'exécution générale permettant à chaque ministre concerné de prendre les arrêtés d'application relevant de ses compétences ..."
- "Die 'erkenning' omvat hierbij de drie betekennissen van het woord: (1) de Vlaamse overheid bevestigt de juistheid van het feit dat de Vlaamse Gebarentaal de taal is van de Dovengemeenschap in Vlaanderen, (2) de Vlaamse overheid aanvaardt het bestaan van die taal ook op juridisch vlak en behandelt ze als dustanig en (3) de Vlaamse overheid uit haar waardering voor deze taal."
- , April 24, 2002.
- Brazilian decree nº 5626, December 22, 2005.
- 17 § Oikeus omaan kieleen ja kulttuuriin [...] Viittomakieltä käyttävien sekä vammaisuuden vuoksi tulkitsemisja käännösapua tarvitsevien oikeudet turvataan lailla. (Ministry of Justice, Finland: Suomen perustuslaki.)
- Í aðalnámskrá grunnskóla eru í fyrsta sinn sett ákvæði um sérstaka íslenskukennslu fyrir nemendur með annað móðurmál en íslensku. Einnig eru ný ákvæði um sérstaka íslenskukennslu fyrir heyrnarlausa og heyrnarskerta nemendur og táknmálskennslu fyrir heyrnarlausa. Markmið fyrir íslenskukennslu nýbúa og heyrnarlausra og táknmálskennslu falla undir námssvið íslensku í grunnskóla. [...] Táknmál hefur grundvallarþýðingu fyrir þroska máls, persónuleika og hugsunar heyrnarlausra nemenda. Hjá heyrnarlausum er táknmálið mikilvægasta uppspretta þekkingar og leið til að taka þátt í íslenskri menningu og menningu heyrnarlausra. Táknmálið hefur mikla þýðingu fyrir alla vinnu í skólanum og fyrir líf og starf nemendanna. (Ministry of Education, Science and Culture: Aðalnámskrá grunnskóla: Almennur hluti)
- Michele Brunelli: Grammatica della LIS
- Закон за употреба на знаковниот јазик, Службен весник на Република Македонија, број 105, 21 август 2009, Скопје
- Ley Federal para las Personas con Discapacidad. http://www.diputados.gob.mx/LeyesBiblio/pdf/262.pdf
- Karla Faurot, Dianne Dellinger, Andy Eatough, Steve Parkhurst (1992, revised 1998 and 2001) The identity of Mexican sign as a language. http://www.sil.org/silesr/2000/2000-002/ © 1999 Summer Institute of Linguistics.
- McKee, R. 2007. The eyes have it! Our third official language–New Zealand Sign Language. Journal of New Zealand Studies, NS 4-5.129-148.
- "Paul Murphy announces recognition for sign language". Northern Ireland Office. 2004-03-30. Retrieved 2008-06-22.
I am pleased to announce formal recognition for both British and Irish Sign Languages in Northern Ireland.
- Na realização da política de ensino incumbe ao Estado proteger e valorizar a língua gestual portuguesa, enquanto expressão cultural e instrumento de acesso à educação e da igualdade de oportunidades. (Assembleia da República: Constituição da república portuguesa
- La Generalitat garantirà l’ús de la llengua de signes pròpia de les persones sordes, que haurà de ser objecte d’ensenyament, protecció i respecte. (Corts Valencianes: Estatut d'Autonomia de la Communitat Valenciana.)
- Wilcox, Sherman. "Universities That Accept ASL In Fulfillment Of Foreign Language Requirements". University of New Mexico.
- "The following languages, namely Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa, are the officially recognised languages of Zimbabwe." (Chapter 1, section 6, CONSTITUTION OF ZIMBABWE (final draft)).
- Report on the status of Sign Languages in Europe (PDF link)
- Official Recognition of British Sign Language