Thursday, 28 January 2021 14:15

Bulgarian Sign Language Law is like Pandora’s box

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On the 21st of January 2021, the Bulgarian Sign Language Bill was approved getting through the second reading stage of the Parliament session and officially becoming a law. The Bill was reviewed on 13th of January 2021 and the changes made are rather insignificant. True, Bulgaria now has legalized Bulgarian Sign Language (BgSL) just like other countries, but so far, that’s the only advantage in the situation. The way BgSL was legalized does not take into account the national specifications of our country, nor does it consider the specifics of all the people in the Bulgarian deaf community. The current analysis, albeit a not-so-comprehensive one, sheds some light on the real picture of the legalization, the consequences and the reactions among people regarding the process.

The Law considers the natural autonomic language of the Deaf as the official BgSL. Hence, it has completely ignored the grammatically correct and articulated versions of the sign language in Bulgaria, which are primarily used by hard-of-hearing people as well as people who have gone deaf. There is certainly a diversity of sign language versions in Bulgaria that the Law should have taken into consideration. Thus, the legislation would have been more inclusive and tolerant regarding people with varying hearing status and different means of expression, that are otherwise not culturally specified as “Deaf”.

We have a wide number of publications on Deaf culture in the Site, so in this article we’ll focus on the key details of the current version of the Bulgarian Sign Language Law regarding its purposes (not changed since its creation): “recognition of the cultural and language identity of the people from the Deaf community, and building an attitude of respect towards them through the introduction of Bulgarian Sign Language” (art.7(3)).

Deaf people’s identity is closely linked to the term “Deaf culture”. It features the whole range of specifications of a minority of people who are Deaf. They have a complete hearing loss that is congenital, and they’re a part of families with Deaf parents. They’re called deaf native people. They are labeled as prelingually deaf since their deafness has developed before their speech. It’s also typical for them to refuse to speak or have speech disorders. This is why they’ve often been called “deaf and dumb” despite the fact that they’ve given up speaking for personal reasons or haven’t had the opportunities to develop their speech early in their lives.

Deaf people learn the spoken language in their country through the signs that their Deaf families use as well as pass down from generation to generation. Hence, the sign language used by the ones who were born deaf is called “natural” language. The Deaf speak this sign language and use it as their primary means of expression. Sign language rules and logic are set by the Deaf. In other words, the Deaf people’s natural language is a visual system created by them to make sense of their environment. That’s why, their sign vocabulary lacks the language diversity of the spoken Bulgarian language. The Deaf don’t know all the words in the spoken language, so they can’t make up signs for a comprehensive dictionary to emerge. Having in mind the limited vocabulary and agrammatism of the Deaf, their natural sign language is a distinct language system with its own rules set by the congenital deafness of the speakers and it doesn’t match the literary language of the country.

Therefore, the term “deaf” used in a cultural sense, refers solely to the people who were born Deaf, have agrammatic speech and speak with natural Bulgarian sign language.

We should keep in mind that acquired (i.e postlingual) deafness is more common than its congenitive form. It could be caused by a medical condition or a trauma that happened at some point in an individual’s life. That’s why, people with acquired hearing loss are a predominant part of the deaf communities throughout the world. They could be divided in two broad categories – hard of hearing and people who have lost their hearing. Each category of these people prefers means of communication that differ from the ones used by the Deaf. These people have lost a part or all of their hearing after acquiring the spoken language which is why they lack the agrammatism that’s typical for the Deaf.

In time and communication, speakers and users of a certain language who work together in exchange have made the language evolve to reach a higher grammatical level. This doesn’t make its sign analogue any less typical or independent in its system. Bulgarians call the more grammatically sophisticated version of sign language literal sign language interpretation. In other words, if the Deaf’s natural language doesn’t use certain parts of speech (e.g. prepositions, conjunctions), literal sign language does it. This causes an increase in the number of signs in the vocabulary, as well as a matching between spoken language and sign language. Literal sign interpretation is mainly preferred by people with acquired deafness. This is why hard of hearing people and ones who have lost their hearing are not a part of the cultural group of the Deaf. They don’t find it appropriate to be referred to as Deaf.

On the other hand, Deaf people know where they belong pretty well. Our long term experience with Deaf communication is really broad and it shows that Deaf people on first encounter ask the right questions of belonging in their natural sign language (“You deaf?”, “You hearing?”, “You hearing hard?”). This is for them to define the hearing status of their interlocutor. It shows us just how well they differentiate between the rest of the cultural groups we have mentioned. It’s not typical for them to call “Deaf” or include in their cultural circle people with a hearing status different than their own. The Deaf are a truly closed community and they place a great importance on communicating and interpreting in their natural language.

Bulgarian Sign Language Law and the consequences of its legalization

The approval of the Bulgarian Sign Language Bill made the Deaf minority more confident than ever because it now has a recognized national language. The rise in the Deaf’s self-esteem is reasonable for the law needs to provide a number of basic rights for them i.e. the right to be given accessible information and use sign language interpretation services. However, the aforementioned facts show that there are three relative cultural groups* – Deaf, Hard of hearing people and people with lost hearing, each group using different versions of the sign language. The legalization of the natural Bulgarian sign language described in the Law, actually denied the right of any other cultural group inside the deaf society to define itself and choose its own means of communication. The acknowledgement of one’s identity as well as the diversity of signs should have been the main purpose of this Law for each of the groups in the deaf society to use the legalized Bulgarian sign language as its own.

With the definition of every single person inside the deaf community as “Deaf” and the labeling of the society as Deaf, the Law actually imposed an inappropriate identity on the hard of hearing people and the ones with lost hearing. Such a substitution of the hearing status will not allow an accurate assessment of the skills of these people especially in terms of their possible vocation. We must mention that the Law puts a sign of equality between sign language speakers and users labeling all of them as Deaf, despite the fact that not all of them use natural sign language and some of them might be hearing people (such is the case of sign language interpreters and/or relatives of the deaf people). The disadvantages of the definition of all sign language users as Deaf are simply evident.

The Law was approved without the conduction of the necessary extensive research and the legalization came. Hence, it’s not clear exactly who needs the legalized form of Bulgarian sign language, which versions of BgSL are present and how widely used each of them is. To top it all, the extent of preparation of the universities and colleges to meet the requirements of the Law was not assessed at all. No publicly available surveys were conducted among the wholesome deaf community to assess their attitudes on the legalization of the natural sign language of the Deaf. The large number of people who have contributed to the creation of the legalized Bulgarian Sign Language was widely announced by the authors of the Law. This created the impression the Law has massive support among the deaf community. The impact factors mentioned by the authors are highly idealistic referring to the advantages of the Law. At the same time, the objectively presented potential disadvantages of the legalization of this form of sign language were not taken into account.

I regret to say that the affirmation of the natural sign language as official Bulgarian Sign Language of the deaf in the form of BgSL Law has introduced into the Bulgarian educational system a kind of language that doesn’t convincingly heighten the level of literacy of children and students with hearing loss. The approval of the natural sign language as official BgSL probably means this certain kind of language will be taught to people and not its grammatically appropriate form. According to the public opinions expressed in the social media, the introduction of the natural sign language of the Deaf into the educational system creates an atmosphere of doubt for people are not sure if SL will be taught efficiently with the unclear conditions and attitudes to the matter and the lack of guarantee SL will make up for a better level of literacy. Moreover, the agrammatism typical for natural sign language, does not correlate with the expected “high quality education” that the Law aims to provide equal access to. We cannot underestimate the risk of the current educational system being unprepared to meet the requirements stated in the Law. There’s a lack of resources and capable professionals to deal with the matter considering the situation up to this date. This goes to confirm that the Law was prematurely introduced without the consideration of some basic necessities that should have been provided before the legalization started.

The current Law does not allow sign language interpreters to actually interpret a term into signs, which makes their services useless to the Deaf. The appointment of the natural sign language in the Law makes no sense if the key task performed by a sign language interpreter is not mentioned in the Law. The number of professional sign language interpreters in Bulgaria is pretty small which is the reason why such people perform both tasks – interpreting and translating the reality into signs. According to the international standards, Deaf people as well as people with hearing impairments cannot be employed as sign language interpreters for the best they could do is translate certain specific situations into signs. In Bulgaria, certificates are only issued for interpretation services which do not include translating the reality into signs. The removal of this key function of sign language interpreters is probably a result of the idea of the authors of the Law to change the tendencies in our country. However, the Law could have introduced comprehensive certificates to allow people with hearing impairments to fully collaborate with the sign language interpreters.

The rise in the self-esteem of the Deaf, resulting from the approval of the Law, had a significant negative impact on their attitude to sign language interpreters. The small number of professional sign language interpreters in Bulgaria could explain why some users of sign language are particularly picky when dealing with the choice of such a professional to conduct the necessary services. However, this is not a reason to behave in a haughty manner, put pressure on people, express your personal preferences or be aggressive towards the mediators who facilitate the contact between the Deaf and the public. According to all international guidelines and ethical norms, sign language interpreters have the right to decline a request for interpretation and they also have the right to be respected in terms of their professionalism referring to the services they provide to sign language speakers and users.

It is concerning to note that the terms used in the Bill and the current Bulgarian Sign Language Law to refer to the people with hearing deficits are “disabled” and “people with hearing impairments”. The reason behind this as stated by the authors of the Law is it is the standard way of referring to people of the above mentioned group in other existing guidelines. If the Bulgarian Sign Language Law had been thoroughly inspected to see whether its final version matches the ambitious idea to raise awareness among the group of people it had been created for, it should have used acceptable and neutral terms to refer to them for their abilities and dignities need to be addressed adequately.

 In conclusion

The general impression of the Law is it had not been created to serve the people from the deaf community to validate their identity, right to education and sign language services they had previously been provided with. The real reason behind the Sign Language legalization seems to be the imposition of somebody’s personal interests and ideas for management of educational, social and sign language interpretation services among this group of people.

The Bulgarian Sign Language Law was approved but it is yet to be published and will be in action in 6 months. Its approval means Bulgaria has met the requirement to legalize Bulgarian Sign Language and done its part when it comes to its obligations in favor of the deaf citizens fitting into the deadline of the timeframe set (2015-2020). I regret to say this period of time had not been used rationally to work on a legal act to satisfy the national specifications of both the country and the people with hearing deficits.

The Bulgarian Sign Language Law is like Pandora’s box** and its very opening raises much apprehension that it is not comprehensive and is of no use to the people it should serve. Its only advantage is Bulgaria has finally made it into the list of countries that have legalized their national sign languages. The disadvantages the Law has affirmed go way beyond the imposition of a label “Deaf” on all people with hearing deficits. If that’s not enough, there‘s a far more concerning situation when it comes to the enforcing of standards in terms of education, sign language interpretation and social services for these standards are nowhere near the international guidelines.

Plenty of official statements (including the Statement “We Hear You” had previously issued) had been sent to the 44th National Assembly to consider the situation in all of its real aspects and familiarize the members of the Bulgarian Parliament with the needs and communication means of the Bulgarian deaf society. We sincerely hoped the deputies knew in details what Law they actually approved. We were disappointed to see that the Law had not been substantially edited even after it passed the second reading.

GERB’s parliamentary group along with the members of other parties who have contributed to the legalization of the Bulgarian Sign Language, are surely convinced they have done a great favor to “all the Deaf people” with the approval of the Bulgarian Sign Language Law. This is a good way to gain status among social groups before the Parliamentary Elections. However, the legalization of this version of the Law is not a reason to be proud of themselves. The serious disadvantages as well as the possible consequences that arise from them should be addressed. The current version of the Law doesn’t seem to adequately solve the existing issues in the field of sign language communication. Quite to the contrary, it makes the problems bigger by enforcing inappropriate identities and attitudes towards the people from the deaf society labeling them as disabled.

The creation of laws should be the mission of people who have the necessary competence, experience and vision to integrate the necessary changes that are inclusive and are motivated by a highly humane attitude.

Christina Tchoparova for Media Democracy Foundation

EN Translation by Maria Mihailova


*relative cultural groups – the terms and categories used in our site for more than 10 years, are well-known and widely used definitions both around the world and in our country. These terms and categories are adequate references to the people with hearing loss and their communication means.

**Pandora’s box - Pandora’s box - In Greek mythology, this is the container, which  upon its opening releases all evils among people. According to the legend, the girl made by the Gods - Pandora (her name mean "who carries all gifts") – out of curiosity opened a box that contained  illnesses, death and many other perils that impacted the world. Though she quickly closed the container, only one thing was left  inside - Hope (auth. remark).

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