Hungary achieves unique rights for the Deaf

The Hungarian Association of the Deaf and HoH expects stigma to disappear.

A SignAll Technologies CEO  sits in front of me on the rooftop terrace of a nice cafe. We both enjoy the refreshing breeze, while Zsolt is looking back on his life in 2010. His R&D team, located in Budapest, Hungary, had just received a grant from the EU for further development of a sign language translation system prototype. Months before receiving the funds, Zsolt Robotka had to make the hard decision whether to focus on one of the many European sign languages or on American Sign Language (ASL). As the team was mostly located in Hungary, developing a Hungarian Sign Language (HSL) database could be the most convenient and affordable choice.

“After years spent in America, I feel a significant difference in the treatment of deaf people in Hungary and the US. From a strategic perspective, the social and political disposition of investing into sign language in Hungary was not very promising, especially for the future market of our products. For a long time in many countries – including Hungary – the mainstreaming of Deaf individuals was a part of the official policy. That included tying deaf children’s hands to the chairs to prevent them from signing in schools. In many regards the US is ahead of Europe when it comes to accessibility and inclusion. This earlier start led to much more awareness and subsequent accessibility for the Deaf, deafness and sign language(s). ASL is the third most studied modern language in the US at the college level, after Spanish and French, and the dynamic promises further improvement of ASL's position.  When I hang out with deaf colleagues or friends in the US, I notice that in almost every restaurant, the service staff knows basic ASL. At hotels, receptionists can at least fingerspell in ASL. Upon introducing my company to an American, I almost always hear back that they learned some ASL at school. While the US deaf community frequently (and rightfully) addresses their lack of inclusion, there are significantly less means of accessibility in Europe.”

Long-awaited accessibility

Until July 2020, the law which regulated the treatment of deaf people was rather similar to the measures decided in 1880 at the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf, commonly referred to as the Milan Conference. At the Milan Conference, it was declared that deaf children should conform to the “mainstream,” being forced to learn how to lipread and speak. 90% of deaf children are born to hearing families. Even now, the education of deaf children in Hungary is more focused on developing their hearing and speech abilities. Families with a deaf/HoH child typically contact health centers where parents are offered hearing aids, like cochlear implant surgery. The argument of normalizing a deaf child is to make them fit in with their family and society. It leads to misaligned efforts for improving the lives of deaf children.

On July 3, 2020, all members of theHungarian parliament voted to adopt changes to the current law regarding signlanguage for deaf Hungarians. This is a huge milestone in the 110+ years fightfor change - an achievement secured through negotiations, pressure, andlobbying by the Hungarian Association of the Deaf and HoH (SINOSZ).

In short, the law now enables anexclusive right for Hungarians to take a state exam in HSL, which discursivelyputs it in line with spoken languages. Ormódi Róbert, directorat SINOSZ, shares his excitement, stating that “the amendment of the law of CXXV/2009 is a big milestone forthe [deaf] community [in Hungary]. This is a long-awaited change. The organization is the successor of a Home forthe Deaf, named after Cházár András, created in 1907 in response to the MilanConference. The contemporary deaf movement started that day. “For more than 110years, our community members were being forced to learn how to speak, refusingthem of their [sign] language rights. Normalization was the goal, despite largeamounts of evidence that theacquisition of visual language helps deaf children in learning, mastering theofficial academic curriculum (because they finally can understand it), and soon.”

One of the most long-awaitedoutcomes of this recognition is the possibility to take state exams in HSL.Both Deaf and hearing Hungarians may now take HSL inpartial fulfillment of the requirements for a Master’s degree. Currently, theprocedure and the examination committee are still yet to be set up. But thestate approval is there, which facilitates the process. The law also requiredaccessibility of TV programs, for which mandatory subtitles are demanded. Only native HSL users can teach HSL – this normwas and remains applicable.

Impact on the Deaf community

SINOSZ is a powerful deaf organization, reinforcing itsleadership in the community of deaf organizations in Europe. Therefore, Hungaryhas already been in a good place among the countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons withDisabilities (CRPD)in terms of sign languages. According to Ormódi, “lifting HSL to the position of oneof the state language exams is unique for the EU. Together with creation of theconcept of a deaf sign language interpreting, we anticipate further bettermentof the situation in the long run. Thanks to the recognition of theHungarian sign language, the current level of education of special pedagogical institutionsfor the deaf will be significantly better, thus more qualified hearing-impairedpeople can come out of these schools.” Until now, most hearing-challenged people could only expect low-skilled jobs.

Due to the pandemic expenditures, the law excludes an increase of the amount of time deaf Hungarians may use a service KONTAKT, similar to VRS/VRI in the US. Still, the Hungarian Deaf community welcomes the new changes. Overall, these will better the position of Deaf people in Hungarian society, leading to more equality for this community.

“In the medium-term, we expect thestigma of using sign language to disappear. We must admit, the usage of thisbeautiful visual language - HSL – has degraded over the last 100+ years, whenit was banned from official usage. Our fellow citizens are often suspicious orsurprised when they see signers. We want signing to become a regular part ofdaily life in Hungary.”

Boosting sing languages teaching and companies accessibilities

Robotka’s business is nurtured by interest in sign languages (namely, ASL). Two of his company’s products, SignAll Chat (an ASL-English translation system), and SignAll Learn (an interactive classroom supplement for learning ASL) are used nationwide in the US. I ask him to speculate about business opportunities the law change will bring.

“We envision a boost of interest to HSL among hearing people. This will soon result in learning HSL at schools and universities. In the US, more and more universities accept ASL mark to fulfill a foreign language requirement. ASL’s popularity is booming. The same effect is anticipated in Hungary after the adoption. State-level support of HSL teaching will create more opportunities for Deaf Hungarians. Another outcome is the development of new market segments, including teaching materials, tools, and technologies - those markets are actively developing for ASL in the US now. In Hungary, the same can now be expected in the foreseeable future. In conducting business development research, we asked US students their reason for learning ASL. 50% of them said that they had a Deaf person in their family or community, who communicates in ASL.  Some students confessed they chose it due to the presumed simplicity, but soon after fell in love with the beautiful and visual ASL. Both reasons are valid and lead to strengthening connections between the Deaf and hearing communities.”

The Hungarian Deaf communityanticipates changes that hearing people take for granted. Accessible TV,extended range of accessible educational programs, interest to HSL amonghearing for further societal inclusion or push for offering other sign languageto the Deaf to further betterment of career opportunities. Ormódi says that thecommunity would welcome if HSL would become a fundamental part of deafeducation  too.

a person in front of SignAll Chat - an automated translation system between ASL and English
A white man is in front of  SignAll Chat system, an automated translation system between ASL and English.

When businesses start paying attention to a certain field, it’s a telltale sign that change is coming. I ask Zsolt Robotka if SignAll has any plans to include HSL in its vision. “Right now, SignAll is doing business in the US solely because of the already developed environment and demand to ASL. Still, we are keeping our eyes open for changes in Europe. Since last week, there is no doubt that the tendency will gradually become more interesting and positive for our business here, too. This tendency that we observe will inevitably bring us closer to the day when we start serving markets in Hungary and other European countries.”

I thank Ormódi Róbert, Director at Hungarian Association of the Deaf and HoH and
Zsolt Robotka, CEO SignAll Technologies, for their help in preparing this article.

Author: Zaryana Lisitsa

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