Sign Language – making museums more accessible

The Magritte Museum in Brussels has become the first museum in Europe to offer visioguides in three sign languages – the sign language of French-speaking Belgium (LSFB), Flemish Sign Language (VGT), and International Sign Language (ISL). The visioguides are touch screen and take visitors on a tour of 21 works by René Magritte. The guides are subtitled so that they can be used by all visitors to the museum. According to the website:

For fifteen years Educateam tries to make the collections of the Royal Museums more accessible by providing guided tours in sign language and by the well-known narrative walks. The sign language program Museum on Scale, part of Educateam, makes you experience the Magritte Museum in a radically different way during the “Poetic walks”. These take place in utter silence and are thus accessible for the hearing and the deaf. Launching of the visioguide is a new step in the effort to offer a greater accessibility. From now on, any deaf visitor can visit the Magritte Museum unexpectedly and completely independent.  This tool positions the museum again in the heart of Europe and meets the needs of deaf foreign visitors.

The popularity of smart phones and tablets means that museums are no doubt looking to replace audio guides with a more up-to-date system. New technology provides a great opportunity to increase the accessibility of museums by providing multilingual content in sign languages as well as spoken languages. Congratulations to Magritte Museum for this initiative – I hope others follow your lead!

If you know of other good practice examples, you can submit them to the Language Rich Europe website and share them with our network!

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Sign Language – making literature more accessible
LRE Launch in Budapest – Hungary is trend setting in sign language policy 

LRE launch in Budapest – ‘Hungary is trend setting in Sign Language policy’

The Language Rich Europe launch took place in Budapest, Hungary on 15 June 2012. Simon Ingram-Hill, British Council Hungary Director writes about the day.

Last Friday 15 June, we presented the findings of the Language Rich Europe research in the morning and ran the first national workshop on sign language in the afternoon. The beautiful and prestigious Banking Hall in the British Embassy was a worthy venue for such an occasion. Though not a full house, numbers held throughout the day and very active participants included government, public and private sectors, researchers and academics, NGOs and heads of cultural institutions. Translation from and to sign language was provided for the whole duration of the event.

The Hungarian government endorsed the significance of the launch in an opening speech by Miklós Soltész, State Secretary for Social, Family and Youth Affairs at the mega-ministry of Human Resources, which covers everything from Education, Health and Culture to Sport and Youth. State Secretary Soltész (see photo) made the point that nations live through their languages, and Hungarians were justly proud of the uniqueness of theirs. But he also emphasised the importance of fighting for the preservation of minority languages, and the special significance of Hungarian policy recognising sign language for the deaf as an official minority language.

Jonathan Knott, UK Ambassador to Hungary, picked up on this recognition of sign language pointing out that in policy terms Hungary is trendsetting in the European context. The Ambassador also made a strong reference to England’s own lack of national capability in languages and that, despite languages being described as important, in practice and provision there have been many fault lines; thus anticipating the launch of the findings of the LRE report for England on 28 June. His speech therefore was much appreciated for referring to UK’s own failings and leaving it to others to set out the Hungary stall.

Eilidh MacDonald, Project Coordinator (Berlin) and Project Director Martin Hope (Brussels) then followed with their overview of the project and comparative country results. The Hungary results were presented by Dr Csilla Bartha, LRE project partner and Senior Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Linguistics, Research Centre for Multilingualism and a panel discussion followed. Some points worth mentioning here:

  • English is not a “danger” to other European languages.
  • Hungarian is a majority language in Hungary but a minority language in neighbouring countries.
  • Hungarian sign language – should it be “integrated” into the curriculum or should it be “segregated” taught in special schools for the deaf?
  • Multilingualism is not just about foreign languages but requires support for its regional and minority languages, too.
  • UK has a high reputation for teaching sign language at school level.
  • It is difficult but necessary to preserve the identity of minority languages such as Romani and crucially important to teach Roma children and adults foreign languages (Director of Research Studies for the Roma and adviser to the Minister of Economy).
  • There are 7 sign languages in Hungary alone.
  • If you want to be well qualified and be mobile for employment purposes then foreign languages should be made compulsory throughout EU.
  • The LRE project has helped researchers and others to build up contacts and networks between countries and across communities.

The afternoon workshop on sign language proved extremely rich, including presentations by MEP Ádám Kósa and President of SINOSZ (the Hungarian Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), Koloman Brenner, Deputy Dean responsible for strategy, ELTE University, Faculty of Liberal Arts, and Csilla Bartha. Discussions were followed by an extremely moving performance of a play performed by Ergo Sum sign language theatre. This was filmed and will be made into a 15-20 minutes shortened version for Youtube with Hungarian and English interpretations and hopefully for showing at the European Parliament next March.

Finally there was a round table discussion moderated (in sign language) by Péter Zalán Romanek which also brought in Vera Tóthmárton from Tesco Hungary and Péter Horváth. Some striking points

  • Is sign language a true language or just a tool? Officially EU has acknowledged sign language but does not make it a legal requirement. Is it a minority language or a language used by those with a physical ability? Hungary legislation accepts both.
  • Hungary is one of only 3 countries that protect the culture of the deaf at the state level through the constitution.
  • In US university students with hearing disabilities get extra help to learn foreign languages instead of giving an exemption.
  • Tesco as a responsible employer has developed good practice tools for dealing with deaf customers and operates an equal opportunity policy which has posts at different levels for deaf employees. Tesco recognises this is very much work in progress.
  • Very few deaf people have the opportunity to learn foreign languages.
  • In USA, American sign language is the 5th most popular foreign language.
  • At ELTE, special tutors are assigned to talented students from the deaf community

All in all a really rich day of revealing findings, discussion and plenty of food for further thought. 

Sign Language – making literature more accessible

This year the Edinburgh International Book Festival piloted a new scheme which offered British Sign Language interpretation by request for any event. This built on previous years where BSL interpretation was offered at a number of pre-decided events. The festival ended on Tuesday and now with some time to reflect, Amanda Barry, Marketing and PR Manager has kindly shared some of the background to the initiative with the Language Rich Europe blog:

Why was the decision made to start this initiative?

We have a set budget for BSL interpreted events and were choosing the events ourselves which seemed the wrong way round. People who book events because they are BSL events rarely make themselves known to us, so we are never sure how many people actually use the facility. The events we used to pick to be BSL interpreted were often the more popular events and would sell out very quickly and we wanted to allow for later bookers, be able to assess how many people actually wanted/needed a BSL interpreter (given we are a book festival about language and words and many deaf people struggle with this) and wanted to give bookers some flexibility in what they could attend.

Although the response rate to the initiative was described as ‘low – about 6 people requested BSL interpreted events’ with no plans to expand upon it in the immediate future, the pilot recognises the importance of  sign languages in making book events more accessible with Press Manager Frances Sutton explaining that the festival wanted ‘to give our hard of hearing customers a wider range of events they can see and enjoy.’

Edinburgh is not the only book festival to include sign language in their programme. Last year, Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival launched the first British Sign Language translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This book enables readers to read the text in English while following video clips of the BSL translation. According to publisher DeafEducate’s website, this is an important resource for language learning:

For people who use British Sign Language as their first language, eBooks will enable them to acquire confidence in reading and understanding English, and likewise for people who use English and want to learn British Sign Language.

Similarly, the European Commission funded project SignLibrary provides access to world literature which has been translated into Sign Language. Texts can be downloaded or read directly on the site and members can create their own stories or translate books themselves which can be uploaded to the Community area.

Initiatives such as these support the European Parliament’s call ‘to promote sign language and to ensure deaf people can work and learn in their preferred language’ and the European Commission‘s acknowledgement of sign language as ‘an important part of Europe’s multilingual diversity.’ There are many more excellent sign language projects and events happening across Europe, a few of which are listed below, but we would love to hear of others in the Comments section:

A big thank you to Amanda Barry, Frances Sutton and Colin Fraser at the Edinburgh International Book Festival for answering my questions and Kathrin Tietze at the British Council for providing information on other sign languages events.