Saturday, January 10, 2009

A word on equal opportunities and integration

OK, I live in Sweden. It’s a pretty good country to live in by any standards. It’s not perfect by any means but it is a democratic, reasonably wealthy and integrated country in comparison with other countries around the world. We are also probably World leading when it comes to gender equality.

When I went to school we started to learn foreign languages already in 3rd grade. As Swedish is not a major language in the world it makes sense to start learning English at an early age. In the 7th grade we could choose to learn a second foreign language. I made a terrible choice and picked German which I liked about as much as having a rectoscopi . Anyway, at age 15 I was able to communicate (if “Guten tag Fräulein“ counts) with people in three different languages which is great.

When we talk about integration we usually mean integrating immigrants in our society. That is of course very important but it makes me wonder even more.

Why the hell do we not teach sign language in our school?

I am now 37 and I can make myself understood with almost everyone I encounter. Some years ago however I was playing Counterstrike on an Internet Café. Next to me was a nice guy in my age that was deaf. I didn’t realize it at first but after shouting and gesturing to him a couple of times he pointed to his ear. We ended up writing messages on paper but it was extremely frustrating. I actually felt ashamed of myself. How could I not have learned sign language? The deaf community is a forgotten minority and one that I believe is segregated from the rest of our society because we don't learn sign language in school.

Now only 1 out of 1 000 people are born deaf. That means that we “only” have around 9 000 people in Sweden and 70 million in total in the world according to WFD (World Federation of the Deaf). Does that mean the group is so small we can ignore it? Is the cost to teach sign language in school to high when doing a cost-benefit analysis? Not in my world.

Considering how much german I can speak today my six years of learning german is much more of a waste. Especially since most germans can speak english today. And if they can't, they at least have made a choice not to learn. Deaf people do not have this luxury. And if the rest of us do not learn they will never be fully integrated in our society. Correct me if I am wrong but I believe it is much easier to learn sign language than to learn a spoken language. That means the cost would be much lower per student when comparing teaching for example german with teaching sign language.

First though, could someone please make a universal sign language?! I don’t get it why the sign language in Sweden differs from that in the US, France or Japan. In our globalized world. I am usually not a big fan of standardization, but here is an application worthy of the effort.

So if any politician would stumple upon this post by mistake, here are a few factors to consider before making that cost- benefit analysis.

The benefits of teaching sign language in school:
1. Integration of deaf people in our society. No they are not integrated today. There is a reason why I don’t have any deaf friends, never had a deaf colleague or played sports with even one deaf guy. The reason is spelled SEGREGATION. Even if there are only 9 000 deaf people in Sweden I would certainly have met more than one in my 37 years on this planet if everything was as it should.

Bonus reasons:
2. An easy way to speak to people around the world when the words fail us.
3. Baby signing is a great way to communicate with kids under age 2. It makes the baby less frustrated and it helps developing spoken language earlier.
4. We all get old… Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to use sign language when your ears falls off your head?
5. Everyday use for places and times when you can’t talk. I would love to be able to show a few signs to a friend at the movies instead of annoying people with my whispering. Well you can probably think of loads of situations when it would be useful.

Cost of teaching sign language in school
Estimation: 1 hour a week for 5-7 years * number of students.
Nothing that we can’t live with. It’s a price we easily must be able to pay in order to integrate a segregated group in our society.
Option: Financing for free. Exchange cooking and baking (household knowledge?) as a subject. How hard is it to read a cook book? I still get mad when thinking about those silly lessons. Total waste of time and money.

Final note. The embarrassing thing is that I still don’t know how to sign. But I will make two promises. I will not shy away from encounters with deaf but instead try to reach out. And If I only get one friend or acquaintance who is deaf I promise you that I will learn sign language faster than you can type hypocrite.

Ps I would love comments from deaf people. And please tell me if I am wrong about anything, I admit to my ignorance, this is just my best try to capture what I feel about this subject.

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Your comments are highly appreciated. I want this to be a living blog with lots of conversations as this is a great way of learning.