The Malta Independent 9 December 2019, Monday

The Maltese Sign Language – it’s national!

Justyne Caruana Sunday, 20 March 2016, 09:28 Last update: about 5 years ago

Sometimes it is hard to focus on one single topic in my Sunday piece, considering the many events that pack my week. It is such a marvellous challenge and great honour to be fully involved in Labour’s task to build a fair society. Working with the elderly and promoting their wellbeing, together with securing the best structures possible for people with disabilities, offer me a wide variety of encouraging opportunities to fulfil my duties in both sectors.

The past week saw, among others, the opening of yet another ward at the St Vincent de Paule Long-term Care Facility with an expenditure of 450,000. It is another major step to transform and modernize our hub and flagship for older persons. The project is part of a long list of concurrent upgrades and refurbishments in other homes, together with other initiatives in the recently opened learning centres in Malta and Gozo. This is the kind of continuity schedule which I normally call ‘works in progress’. A big thank you goes to CEO Dr Josianne Cutajar and her team at St Vincent de Paule.


Landmark Bill– Number 88 of 2016

On Wednesday 16 March, the House of Representatives rose for the Easter recess, but the sitting signalled a very important landmark for the Deaf community. The formal approval and recognition by Parliament of the Maltese Sign Language as a national language is a very important goal in my political career. Long before Labour’s historic electoral victory three years ago and my appointment as Parliamentary Secretary two years ago, I had the opportunity to discuss the matter with the deaf community, to whom I had promised my full support.

It was then my personal commitment and it became my privilege last Wednesday in achieving the full recognition of a right these persons had been aspiring to for many long years. It was a pleasure to invite them to the Parliament Chamber that evening to share with me the joy of establishing such a major target, consolidating further their rights within society – at all levels. All those who worked with me over the last months in formulating the law itself, could appreciate better the broad smiles of the deaf community representatives!  

I must admit it was an emotional moment for me to move this Bill for approval and I could not help keeping eye contact with my guests all through my brief procedural presentation to a unanimous approval.  Up to the day before the final plenary approval, I had been actively amending the final touches to the least details of the draft Bill – bill number 88 – in the 92nd meeting of the House Committee for the Consideration of Bills.


Local and international recognition

Last Wednesday’s event also reminded me of the meetings I had last year at international fora with Dr Umberto Insolera, the Vice-president of the European Union of the Deaf (EUD). Last November I attended the Council of Europe’s conference in Dublin on “Promoting Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Ambitions, Impact and Challenges Ahead”. As always, such meetings give me the opportunity to verify the progress achieved locally through our own initiatives when compared to what other countries have realized so far, and to recognise ways of moving ahead.

During last November’s meeting with Dr Insolera, I had in fact discussed the Bill to officially recognise Maltese Sign Language as an official language, informing him also that we already offer sign language interpreting services for free as part of our national service provision. While endorsing my plans he appreciated that there will also be a specific council to ensure the development of Maltese Sign Language and secure its widest use. 

Vice-president Insolera had remarked that Malta had been practically absent for past years from this European forum. I took this comment as a challenge to work harder in close liaison with international bodies for all that needs to be done locally for the Deaf community.  It was therefore most satisfying that last Wednesday Dr Insolera himself tweeted: “Caruana launched MSL interpretation service for deaf persons after #recognition. Great work!” On a separate tweet he added: “Al parlamento maltese viene riconosciuta la #lingua dei segni maltese! Complimenti Caruana! In UE resta Italia e Lussemburgo”.


Consolidating equal linguistic rights

The objects of this Bill, which I first tabled in March last year, are to provide for the setting up of the Sign Language Council of Malta, in order to achieve a situation where the Deaf community is consulted on matters relating to Maltese Sign Language. Two members from the Deaf community will form part of this Council. The Bill also provides for the promotion of the use and development of Maltese Sign Language, while declaring it an official language of Malta.

This Act itself is based on the principles of the consolidation of human rights, equal opportunities and linguistic rights.  Quoting from the official text, “Maltese Sign Language means the visual and gestural language that is the first or preferred language in Malta of the distinct linguistic and cultural Deaf community.” This is undoubtedly a first in Malta.


Translating the law into facts

Parallel to this legislative landmark, my Parliamentary Secretariat is actively supporting training courses in the use of the Maltese Sign Language. Only last weekend the Gozo Association for the Deaf held its third session in their course for 20 people, with my Secretariat covering all the financial expenses.  It is always inspiring to work closely with voluntary organisations, and I always insist that, rather than lip service, we offer them tangible support to further their commitments for the benefit of various cohorts within the community.

At the same time, I have also launched a professional interpreter service of the Maltese Sign Language, an initiative ably led by Aġenzija Sapport which also falls within my remit.  We know that so far we already have 65 people who use such services, which are very useful in education, employment, legal and other social sectors.  This will in itself offer more career opportunities in addition to the four professional interpreters we currently have. It is my hope that studies and training in the Maltese Sign Language is taken up. Interpreter services can be requested by sending an email to [email protected] or an SMS to 7900 5988.

Indeed it was a fruitful week that rewarded my collaborators for the incessant work we put in both sectors of the elderly and persons with disabilities. It also serves to remind me of my first two years in charge of this challenging but interesting portfolio. No matter the amount of quality achievements reached, more challenges are on the way. Bring them on! 

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