Make sign language official – activists

Activists are pushing for the recognition of sign language as one of the country’s official languages.
A sign language interpretor . Net photo.
A sign language interpretor . Net photo.

Activists are pushing for the recognition of sign language as one of the country’s official languages.

This would make it the fifth official language after Kinyarwanda, English, French and Swahili.


The development comes at a time when the country is awaiting a new sign language dictionary, which is expected to be ready later this year.


The dictionary, which would be the second of its kind for Rwanda, has been in the works since 2014.


The project was jointly undertaken by the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) and the Rwanda National Union of the Deaf (RNUD) with support from Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

Now, activists say that, around the time the dictionary will be unveiled, they intend to submit a petition to parliament seeking to make sign language official in Rwanda.

“The objective is to see sign language taught in all the schools in Rwanda,” Theophile Binama, a sign language training coordinator at the Rwanda National Union of the Deaf, told The New Times.

In recent years, he said, they have trained sign language trainers and collected relevant data from across the country which they are using to put together the sign language dictionary.

Article 40 of the Constitution says the State has the duty to take special measures to facilitate the education of disabled people. An organic law provides for the nature and specificities of the training.

In Africa, sign language is officially recognised in Zimbabwe’s constitution. In Kenya, the constitution says the State should “promote” the use of sign language, while in South Africa, discussions to make it official are ongoing following a petition by associations representing the deaf community in which they said millions were being excluded from accessing facilities and services because they were not able to communicate with service providers.

Mainstream universities in Uganda and Kenya offer diploma courses in sign language.

In Rwanda, the language is only taught under the programmes run by the national union of the deaf.

The state minister for legal and constitutional affairs, Evode Uwizeyimana, told The New Times on Monday, that the demand to make sign language an official language would need to be backed by the cabinet and parliament. “It would be at the discretion of cabinet to do so but this has to be absolutely necessary,” he said.

He cited Article 8 of the Constitution which stipulates that a new official language can be adopted through an organic law.

The Rwandan sign language dictionary will help address challenges faced by people with hearing impairment to access some services or express themselves in a community that hardly understands sign language, activists say.

Signs used differ from country to country, hence the need for a Rwandan culture based sign language dictionary, which represents the local context, they said.

This will be the second edition. The first edition of the country’s sign language dictionary was produced in 2009 and had about 900 signs. But it is limited, thus the need for a new edition, activists say.

Sign language is a language which principally uses manual communication to convey meaning, as opposed to spoken language. This can involve simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to express a speaker’s thoughts.

It is not clear how many sign languages there are. The 2013 edition of Ethnologue lists 137 sign languages. Some sign languages have obtained some form of legal recognition, while others have no status at all.

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