Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

Bridging the gap between the deaf and hearing community. | Roos Wattel | TEDxAmsterdamWomen


Translator: Larissa Willemsen
Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs I was born deaf,
as well as my older sister. And when we were little,
we made a drawing together of two worlds, the deaf world and the hearing world. And in between those worlds was a bridge. And this was our ideal world because this was a bridge that people
could use to exchange experiences and communicate without limitations. I grew up in both the deaf
and the hearing world, and I noticed that
there is a gap between the two. When I was 10 years old, I was at the platform
waiting for a train with my dad, and I played with his train ticket. It said this was an assistance card
for a person with a handicap. I said “Dad, you bought the wrong ticket.” And he said, “No,
this is how society views you. You are a person with a handicap.” That made me laugh, and I was like, “I have a handicap?” I can walk. I’m not missing an arm. How am I a person with a handicap? Only later I realized that
that is what society views me like because of my deafness. Eventually I got older. I didn’t feel handicapped because
when we are among other deaf people, communication is easy. There are no boundaries. We are very proud of our native language,
the Dutch Sign Language. We are proud of our culture. And we can sign and communicate
without barriers. I’ve lost my thread here. So we are very proud of our culture,
our sign language, and we also have a shared history. Just for your information,
in Europe and other places in the world, from 1880 until 1980,
a period of about 100 years, sign languages have been
forbidden in education. If a pupil were to sign,
they would get punished. We don’t feel like
people with a disability, but society poses boundaries for us because it’s very hard
to communicate with hearing people who don’t know our language. It’s hard to communicate
with hearing people that view us from a perspective
that our ears are defining us, the things we cannot do
because of our deafness, and that is the medical view. In 2012, I started working at Greenpeace,
and that was my dream job. I was really happy to be offered this job because it gave me an opportunity, and I felt like I could be
on equal footing with others. But I needed for 30% of my working time
to use the services of interpreters to communicate with my colleagues. But unfortunately, in the Netherlands, the law says that you only have a right
to 15% of your working time, so that was a boundary. I went to court;
tried to fight the government, but lost the case. That was a really big setback. I wanted to appeal the case,
but unfortunately laws, regulations don’t allow for that in the Netherlands, so that was hard that the government tells me
I cannot work at Greenpeace because this is not a suitable job for me. You can only communicate
with your colleagues for 15% of your time. So that made me wonder: Am I the person with the disability or does the society
give me this disability? So my contract at Greenpeace
wasn’t renewed. I had to leave, and I accepted that,
and I made a career switch. and I started my own company,
Wat Telt!, with my sister. And we wanted to make our dream come true. We wanted to connect
the deaf and the hearing world. And we became consultants
for accessibilities in the culture and arts fields. And we started in that field
because we, as deaf persons, are very proud of our culture, and we wanted to focus
on a cultural perspective, so that is why we started in that domain. That was the best place to start. So we started working, and every once in a while
a museum would ask us why we thought that
they were not accessible, because deaf people can use their eyes,
and see the paintings and the objects. And that is a very good question, but it’s also a very good illustration of how difficult it is
to put yourself in a deaf person’s shoes. Because yes, we can see things, obviously,
but it’s still very complicated. There is a lack of information
because society is very sound based. All information is based
on spoken language, and that’s what we miss. And also, just for your information, more than 95% of deaf children
are born in hearing families. Their parents then need
to learn how to sign so that already causes a delay
in their language development. And that is why the deaf education focuses
on language learning rather than culture, so reading and writing, but there’s less attention
to culture and arts. As a deaf person, when you grow up
and you go into a museum, the first hurdle you get to
is the desk where you buy your ticket. Because people tend to panic slightly
when they meet a deaf person because they don’t know
how to communicate with them. The only thing you want to do
is buy a ticket. That is already a very difficult situation
which doesn’t make you feel welcome. And when you then get into the museum, there are many people walking around
with headsets and in groups, and that makes you feel isolated as well. And then in the rooms, obviously,
there’s text on the wall, maybe in Dutch or in English, and that’s very hard to read because for many deaf people,
Dutch is their second language. Their native language
is their sign language. This means that they don’t feel
at home in a museum. It’s really for them
a place for hearing people. So in 2015, Wat Telt! and Foam,
the photography museum in Amsterdam, we set up this project,
Museums in Sign Language. And we’ve been going on
for three years now, and we have a network
of 16 associated museums right now. And they have tour guides
or tours in sign language, and we trained these guides
to do the tours. And sometimes people ask me, How many
people are there in the Netherlands? Well, there’s a large group
of about 1.5 million people some degree of hearing loss. It’s a relatively big group,
but there are many different forms. There are people who became deaf
of noises or old age, a small part of that group,
17,000 people, that use sign language. And that might be a very small group, yes, but each target audience
has an added value. The same goes for deaf people. If you target this audience, you are forced to think about
how to make your communication accessible. Is your information spoken? Is it visual enough? How can you make it accessible
in language for this target group? And every target group, small or large, can have an influence on the overall
quality of your accessibility. And that’s what everybody benefits from. What’s important is that you work
together with your target group, with deaf people in this case. Because then you can work on a equal basis
and inclusively towards accessibility. We have decided to use museum guides
who are deaf people themselves, so not hearing guides with an interpreter. But we wanted deaf people
to do the tours themselves because they are native signers, they are representatives
of the deaf culture, and they have an identification
with their visitors. We are very visual. Sign languages are 3D languages. And what they do
when they come into the museum is they make 2D flat art come to life in a 3D language. It’s very visual,
and it’s very beautiful to see. Also for hearing people, it intrigues them. They notice it. And that is a way to make deaf people
more visible in society. So that is a positive thing
for deaf people to be recognized. Also, when you go into a museum,
there’s different exhibits, different themes that you can learn from. That means that the lack of information
they have can be remedied by that. And this empowers them. I do believe that museums
are an intersection for different perspectives,
different cultures and experiences, and they are a source
for new ideas and inspiration. And I think that is the point of museums; that is, they should be inspiring. And I think that when museums
become more inclusive and accessible, they can be role models
for other organizations as well in their quest to be
an inclusive society in the future. I would like to urge you
to abandon your medical view and to look at deaf people
from a cultural view because it’s a very rich
and beautiful culture, and we have a beautiful language. So talk to us, work with us
on an equal basis, inclusively, and maybe in that way, the bridge between
the hearing world and the deaf world can really become a reality. Thank you. (Applause)

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