"We have become disabled by community attitudes"

WFD President Colin Allen: Linguistic discrimination creates disability
Photo of Colin Allen. Credit: Light for the World

Australian Sign Language native speaker Colin Allen is President of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) and Chair of the International Disability Alliance (IDA). He has been promoting the linguistic rights of sign language users for more than 35 years. We met Colin at the 2017 Zero Project Conference in Vienna.

What inspires you most about the work that you do?

Throughout my life I have experienced a number of barriers, so I really want to be involved in groundbreaking change. I want to remove those obstacles for people’s lives. That’s what really motivates me. Using tools like the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities let me break down these barriers throughout the world and to try and remove ignorance, to ensure that we have our rights satisfied, so we are able to participate equally in society. 

How have societal attitudes towards deaf people changed since you became involved in the disability rights movement?

In the past few years there have been a number of countries that have adopted or actually ratified in law their national sign languages. Those countries therefore have recognized their sign languages equivalent to their spoken languages. And I think that aligns very well on the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, particularly Article 2, which refers to languages. I think when that occurs the barriers are removed. It means that children have access to education via sign language i.e. bilingual education, that sign language research is able to take place. And that benefits the community too. 

Acknowledging national sign languages is the base for the inclusion of deaf people?

Yes, definitely. We have our own language. Children that are born deaf experience better outcomes when they acquire a sign language, that is evidence based on research. Sign language is a much more natural acquisition for deaf children. If you look at deaf people throughout the world, a high percentage have been taught spoken language methods rather than sign language. I see this is a breach of a child’s rights to express themselves in an appropriate manner. A very high percentage of deaf children come from hearing parents, who then go on to decide the mode of language, of education and often it’s not very successful. If you look at deaf children that have been involved in sign language environments, the outcome is significantly better. It is really valuable for the deaf community to have the recognition of sign language so they are able to participate effectively in society. 

What are your wishes for the disability rights movement for the future? Which developments are crucial?

There’s huge wishes that I have. I want the world to know that sign language is the language of the deaf community. That’s number 1. Number 2 is that we have barrier free environments. At the moment, the community may be confused - deaf people often refer themselves as sign language users and not necessarily as part of the community of persons with disabilities. I think really what’s happened is that we have become disabled by communities attitudes. They are the ones that disable us. If you go to a country where no one speaks one of your languages, you become disabled. If there is simultaneous language or language that you both are aware of, you have equality. That’s what I am aiming for.