As different parts of the world become ever more connected, and as we seek through organisations like the United Nations and projects like the Sustainable Development Goals to improve the standards of living for all people, is there perhaps a danger that we will fail to understand the importance of the local and people’s intimate connections to their surroundings? Their social and cultural practices? In a time of unprecedented intensity and homogenisation in global communication, you might be surprised to discover that new languages are still being developed on a local level to express the social, cultural and every day practical needs of particular groups of people. One example of such a new language is the Tibetan sign language.
In the midst of so many languages being endangered or dying, I became fascinated by this apparent anomaly. I began to see that this emergence was linked to a bigger, more complex picture, including large-scale urbanisation, the work of international Non-Governmental Organisations in Tibet, and a global interest in Tibetan culture, and disability related activism. The Tibet Autonomous Region, or the TAR, is a nominally autonomous province of the People’s Republic of China into which it was for forcefully integrated in 1951. Historically, Tibetans lived in small villages, few towns and nomadic encampments. This began to change during the 1990s when many people moved to Lhasa, the capital city of the TAR.
And perhaps for the first time in Tibetan history, deaf people came together in larger numbers and they began to sign at a much higher frequency than before. In the early 2000s, Handicap International, an international NGO, began to work in Lhasa on the Tibetan Sign Language Project, documenting and promoting deaf Tibetan signs and helping create initiatives that educated and empowered deaf Tibetans. Tibetan Sign Language dictionaries and children’s books were produced and courses in the language run. A Sunday deaf club took place combining educational and social activities at which lasting relationships between deaf Tibetans were formed in their new language. These were spaces where deaf Tibetans turned towards each other more than ever before.
At the same time, in the year 2000, the Government established a deaf school in Lhasa in which, however, a form of Chinese Sign Language was used in teaching. As a result we find a linguistic boundary between two groups of deaf signers in Lhasa. On the one side, those who prefer Tibetan Sign Language and these are usually people who are either educated prior to the establishment of the school or had no formal education at all. On the other side, there were those using primarily Chinese Sign Language who had been educated in this deaf school.
Since about 2012 there has been more contact between these two groups and many Tibetan Sign Language users have started to code switch and use Chinese signs within the Tibetan Sign Language. Even for signs they already have in their language. Overall, and even in regular education, the use of the Tibetan language in the TAR is decreasing in favour of the national language, Chinese or ‘Putonghua’. There is new national legislation on the so called unification of Chinese Sign Language also and it is becoming increasingly clear that Tibetan Sign Language is not just an emerging, new, but also an endangered language. Few new signers learn it as their main sign language.
Instead, a highly mixed Tibetan and Chinese sign language is developing and is used, at least in Lhasa. This example shows that there is a major tension that exists in the People’s Republic of China between the language needs and preferences of minorities with little, no de-facto political power and the demands made on them to be good modern citizens of the nation. This requires them to some extent to adaptat to Han-Chinese ways of being, speaking and, in this case, signing. But this tension is not just a national or local one. Disability rights are an increasingly prominent topic on a global level.
Are Tibetans then now, more than before, able to make the global disability rights movement work for their own local problems in some way? Is it true that the world is becoming smaller and is this always a good thing? In 2008, China became one of the first countries to have ratified the 2006 United Nations International Conventions
on the Rights of People with Disabilities: the so far most ambitious global effort to ensure human rights for people with disabilities.
It specifies: one, the recognition and use of sign languages including respect for deaf culture and identity. Second, bilingual education in a sign language and a spoken language. Third, accessibility to all areas of society and life including legislation to secure equal citizenship for all and prevent discrimination. And fourth, providing sign language interpretation. A recent report on deaf people and human rights, however, concludes that few deaf people are able to truly enjoy even basic human rights. Although few countries deny deaf people access to education, government services or equal citizenship on the basis of deafness alone, they are often excluded from large sections of society because sign language isn’t recognised.
Bilingual education isn’t available, sign language interpretation is limited, and there is a widespread lack of awareness and knowledge about the situation of deaf people. Deaf people in many places can’t even get a driving licence. As we have seen when looking at the example of Tibetan Sign Language, the provision of sign language services in the way that the Convention aims for is far from straightforward. Particularly in such a large country as is China with great internal diversity as well as existing power differentials between Han-Chinese and ethnic minorities.
The People’s Republic of China’s state language commission and other central Beijing based state organisations interpret the convention with regard to deaf people in such a way that the Chinese state would promote and provide only for one sign language for all of the nation’s estimated 20 million deaf people. No matter what their native sign languages might be. The generally politically tense environment that about 3,000 deaf Tibetans live in Lhasa, paired with low levels of education and lack of political power, make it pretty impossible for them to draw on the new global legal frameworks to advance their own agenda and realise their human rights.
This has become even more difficult since the international NGOs they used to partner with are no longer able to work in Tibet. The social model of disability posits that the person with a disability is not the problem but rather it is society creating all the barriers and making a person feel and ‘be’ disabled. With regard to sign language, should we then not also be more focused on hearing members of society improving their sign language skills and their awareness about deaf people? Can we think of ways that would get large independent states like China to truly enact global human rights for people with disabilities at national and local levels appropriate to local cultural and linguistic environments?
And what kind of incentives could there be for that? Are there ways that the dreams of deaf Tibetans, to live in a barrier-free environment, would become a reality? Or are such rights after all not universally applicable precisely because the local, social, cultural, economic, and political situations are so diverse?