Uzbek Sign Language (USL): to be, or not to be? - Dilmurad Yusupov
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Uzbek Sign Language (USL): to be, or not to be?

Illustration by Eldos Fazylbekov / Gazeta.uz

Today is the International Day of Sign Languages! What is the status of sign language in Uzbekistan and how are the rights of deaf people to access information realised? Together with a deaf rights activist Mamur Akhliddinov, we tried to find answers to these questions. Below I provide the English translation of the article that we wrote together for Gazeta.uz:

The UN General Assembly proclaimed 23 September International Day of Sign Languages. This day has been celebrated annually since 2018 to raise awareness of the role of sign languages and to fully realise the rights of deaf and hard of hearing people. According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are about 72 million deaf people in the world, more than 80% of whom live in developing countries.

As of 2019, 21,212 people with hearing impairments were registered with the Society of the Deaf of Uzbekistan. Goskomstat (the State Statistics Committee of Uzbekistan) does not publish data separately on the number of people with hearing impairments, and one has to rely on the data of the Society of the Deaf. It is likely that many deaf and hard of hearing people are still not registered or even have a disability group.

On the territory of Uzbekistan and other post-Soviet countries, Russian sign language (RSL) is used. Preliminary evidence shows that the sign language used in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan does not differ much from RSL used in the Russian Federation. However, there are some differences based on the local cultural context.

Sign languages, like ordinary speech languages, are continually evolving and include new words, phrases and idioms in their vocabulary based on the needs of the daily life of deaf and hard of hearing people. Thus, we can say that from the day of gaining independence in 1991, the sign language used in Uzbekistan has also undergone some changes and turned into a kind of dialect of RSL. However, the question of whether this language can be called Uzbek Sign Language (UZL) remains open.

Recent achievements

Since 1 July of last year, per the decree of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the Dispatch Service for social support of persons with hearing and speech problems was launched for the first time under the Ministry of Emergency Situations. This service is open 24 hours a day and accepts requests from deaf and hard of hearing people through video calls, text messages and specialised software.

The work of the dispatch service is commendable, but there are also some drawbacks. Many deaf people complain that they cannot get through – the JusTalk application used for video calls is malfunctioning. Until now, a unified domestic application has not been developed, through which the deaf and hard of hearing people could contact emergency service operators.

Another achievement is the introduction of the Surdo-Online sign language interpretation hotline. When visiting pharmacies, banks, railway ticket offices and other public institutions that have signed an agreement with Surdo-Online, deaf people can use the services of sign language interpreters online using installed tablets. The National Chamber of Innovative Healthcare of Uzbekistan has also launched a similar pilot project with partners from Ukraine.

From 25 January 2019, for the first time in the history of Uzbekistan, Friday sermons in the central mosques of the country began to be broadcast with sign translation. The project is being implemented by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, the Waqf Public Charitable Foundation and Surdo-Online. Hard of hearing believers can now listen to Friday sermons in their designated areas through a specially installed screen.

Deaf men during a Friday prayer in one of the central mosques of Andijan using Surdo-Online. Photo: Waqf Fund.

Another problem is the high cost of mobile services for deaf and hard of hearing users. For communication, deaf people in Uzbekistan mainly use video communication, which “eats up” a lot of mobile Internet traffic.

For example, in Russia, there is a unique favourable call plan Deafon, designed for deaf and hard of hearing customers. Deafon has special services for the deaf, including unlimited internet and voicemail. Convenience lies in the fact that if the hearing person calls a deaf person, the voicemail replies that the subscriber is deaf and asks to leave a message. Why our national mobile operators don’t take this initiative as part of their corporate social responsibility?

Uncertain status

There are over 300 different sign languages ​​in the world, and many of them are recognised as fully-fledged natural languages. There is also International Sign Language (ISL), which is used by deaf and hard of hearing people at international events and in communication between deaf people from different countries.

Sign languages ​​have gained legal status in many countries. For example, for the first time in the world, Ugandan sign language was enshrined in the country’s constitution in 1995. In New Zealand, New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is the third official language after English and Maori.

Among the CIS countries, for example, in Russia RSL was recognised as “the language of communication in the presence of hearing and (or) speech impairments, including in the spheres of oral use of the state language.” Corresponding changes were made to the law of the Russian Federation “On social protection of disabled people” in 2012.

In practice, the legal status of sign language means that all institutions must provide sign language interpretation services for deaf and hard of hearing people.

Article 22 of the Law “On Social Protection of Persons with Disabilities in the Republic of Uzbekistan” recognises the limited legal status of sign language as a “means of interpersonal communication.” Unfortunately, sign language in our country remains only a means of everyday communication between deaf and hard of hearing people, and not a full-fledged language for obtaining information and quality education.

The undefined status of sign language is the main reason for the lack of government support programs for it and its use in specialised schools as a full-fledged language of instruction. Many teachers of specialised boarding schools for deaf and hard of hearing children do not even know sign language. The use of sign language by students is often limited – the main emphasis is on developing the skill of lip reading and gaining oral speech (articulation).

During the closure of schools for quarantine due to COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Public Education organised distance learning on TV and video lessons were available in Uzbek and Russian with sign language interpretation. While welcoming the attempt of the leadership of the Ministry of Education to be inclusive in the educational process, one cannot help drawing attention to the fact that not all teachers were able to translate lessons into sign language with high quality.

According to the observations of the authors, the sign language translation in the video lessons of primary grades was difficult for deaf children to understand. It is possible that even some first graders of boarding schools do not know sign language. Moreover, the specialised curriculum of boarding schools differs significantly from the curriculum of mainstream schools – students with hearing impairments have an extended program, and they graduate from school a year later. In other words, video lessons from general education schools, even with sign language interpretation, were not available for the current education level of children with hearing impairments.

Lack of interpreters

There is an acute shortage of qualified sign language interpreters in Uzbekistan. You can count them on your fingers. According to unofficial data, only in Tashkent and Tashkent region, there are about ten sign language interpreters for about 5000 deaf people. In other words, there are only about two sign language interpreters per 1000 deaf people.

The salaries of sign language interpreters are miserable, and their work is overwhelming. They not only provide interpretation services but also protect the rights of the deaf in the courts, police, tax inspection, during disability assessment at Medical Labour Expert Commissions (VTEK). The profession of a sign language interpreter is unattractive: only those who have a family relationship with deaf people go there, and most often these are children of deaf parents.

The shortage of professional sign language translators is observed not only in our country but also in many other CIS countries. For example, in Russia there are only three sign language interpreters for every 1000 deaf people, while in Finland this figure is 100 times higher. There are 300 sign language interpreters per 1000 deaf people.

To solve the problem of the shortage of sign language interpreters, the Center for Disabled Youth and Children began to organise free sign language courses for everyone. Back in December 2017, by a presidential decree, the Cabinet of Ministers was instructed to take measures to create special courses for teaching sign language on the basis of secondary schools in regional and district centres. However, for unclear reasons, such courses were never organised by the responsible executors of the presidential decree.

“In 2018, we were summoned by a specialist from the Ministry of Public Education on this issue. He was assigned to deal with this issue. Another employee of the Republican Education Center said that the issue was stalled due to the status of sign language – the status of sign language does not allow opening official courses. And there are no qualified sign language teachers with higher pedagogical education,” explains Lyubov Inogamova, chairperson of the Tashkent regional board of the Society of the Deaf of Uzbekistan.

Limited sign language interpretation services

In Russia, every citizen with a hearing impairment has the right to use up to 40 hours of sign language interpretation per year at the expense of the federal budget, and deafblind people can receive up to 240 hours of sign language interpretation (finger-type method of communication on fingers, palm to palm in sign language). In neighbouring Kazakhstan, at the expense of the state budget, they provide services of a sign language specialist – up to 30 hours a year. However, in Uzbekistan, the minimum hours of sign language services are not legally enshrined and are not included in the list of public services provided to disabled people. 

“In Russia, a list of state services provided at the expense of the federal state budget has been approved. The list, along with the provision of hearing aids, also includes sign language interpretation services. Here, in Uzbekistan, hearing aids are included in the list, sign language interpretation services are not included. What is the problem? The Central Board of the Society of the Deaf of Uzbekistan submitted problems and proposals to the Committee on Labor, Health and Social Affairs under the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis, as well as the Senate Committee on Science, Education and Health to include sign language interpretation services provided by the state budget. But the issue is not being resolved,” Lyubov Inogamova despairs.

The lack of translation services is exacerbated by the involvement of sign language interpreters on national television. As a result, the already limited sign language interpretation services are becoming even less accessible to people with hearing impairments. There are more than 20 public and private channels in Uzbekistan. Of these, only on O’zbekiston 24, MY5 and UzReport TV one can watch some programs with sign language interpretation. In other words, only about 15% of television channels provide sign language interpretation services.

Unfortunately, the authors’ article about the need to provide national TV channels with roll caption and subtitles using technologies for automatic recognition of Uzbek speech was left without attention. Subtitles could greatly facilitate access to information and improve literacy rates for deaf and hard of hearing viewers in the face of limited sign language interpretation services.

Passiveness in protecting rights and interests

Back in 2017, the author of the blog of the Society of the Deaf of Uzbekistan, Mamur Akhliddinov, presented a project to the chairperson of the Central Board of the Society of the Deaf Zhavokhir Rykhsiev to create an information channel in sign language and with subtitles on YouTube and social media. The project aimed to regularly provide quality information and raise the literacy level of deaf young people. However, the hearing chairperson refused to support, citing the fact that the project was contrary to the laws of Uzbekistan. He did not specify which laws the project violates.

The Society of the Deaf of Uzbekistan is the leading public organisation to unite deaf and hard of hearing citizens across the country. The organisation should develop and regulate sign language in the country, work on the dictionary of signs and promote the official recognition of sign language as a full-fledged state language.

For example, the All-Russian Society of the Deaf is directly involved in the development of RSL and the provision of essential sign language interpretation services. Unfortunately, the Society of the Deaf of Uzbekistan is not developing sign language, and the services of sign language interpreters are severely limited, even in the capital, not to mention remote regions of the country. Society leaders cite a lack of financial resources to develop sign language and provide deaf people with an adequate number of qualified sign language interpreters.

Since 2017, the Society of the Deaf of Uzbekistan has suspended its membership in the World Federation of the Deaf, which unites about 135 national associations of the deaf around the world. The reason is the same – the deplorable financial situation of the Society of the Deaf of Uzbekistan, the presence of debts to the WFD and the inability to pay membership fees.

Recognise, accept and encourage

The UN General Assembly reaffirmed that early access to sign language and quality education in sign language is vital to the growth and development of deaf people. Sign language interpretation services are essential to overcome communication barriers and fully integrate them into society.

The UN recognises sign languages ​​as an element of the linguistic identity and culture of deaf people. Sign languages ​​may be structurally different from spoken languages, but they are in no way inferior to them and are full natural languages. When working with deaf communities, the international principle ‘nothing about us without us’ should always be considered and applied.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Uzbekistan signed on 27 February 2009 and has not yet ratified, calls on states to recognise, accept and encourage the use of sign languages. To improve the status of the Uzbek sign language and to realise the rights of deaf and hard of hearing citizens to full access to information and communication, the authors of the article propose to take the following measures:

  • define the status of the Uzbek sign language as the state language legally, and not only as a “means of interpersonal communication”;
  • organise professional training courses for sign language interpreters, improve their working conditions and the attractiveness of this profession. To encourage their work and improve their social status, we propose to establish a professional holiday Sign Language Interpreters Day in Uzbekistan;
  • promote the development of sign language in specialised boarding schools for children with hearing impairments and do not limit its use in the educational processes of deaf and hard of hearing children and adults;
  • train more professional sign language teachers and make it mandatory for teachers in specialised boarding schools for children with hearing impairments;
  • provide broad access to sign language interpretation services, legislatively fixing the minimum number of hours of sign language interpretation services in the list of rehabilitation services offered at the expense of the state budget;
  • establish public and private partnerships in the provision of affordable mobile video communication services and discounted rates for deaf and hard of hearing people, as well as provision of sign language interpretation services;
  • develop domestic technologies for automatic recognition of oral Uzbek speech for the subsequent introduction of subtitles and rolling captions on national TV channels.
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