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Do You Know About Deaf Communities and Arabic Sign Languages in the Arab World?

posted on: Oct 27, 2020

By: Katie Teague/Arab America Contributing Writer

Imagine what your world would be like if you could only communicate with a few select people.  Any time you tried to express a thought, ask a question, or give an answer, no one would understand you.  For Deaf people in the Arab world, that is what life is like on a daily basis, as they struggle to find proper accommodations connecting with Arabic Sign Languages.

“California has one sign language interpreter for every 46 hearing-impaired people. Saudi Arabia has one for approximately every 93,000.” Center for Strategic and International Studies

Arabic Sign Languages

As of 2014, 11 million of the 350 million people living in the Arab world suffer from hearing loss.  Although Arabic Sign Languages have been established across the region, programs for assistance, training, and education are minimal.  This issue exists for several reasons that go beyond a lack of financial support or initiative.

Deaf children of Gaza gathered together while participating in activities of inclusion, run by a local charity called “Beloved Palestine”. Although sign languages do exist in the Middle East, programs for assistance, training, and education are minimal.

First and foremost, there is the question of which Arabic to sign in.  Dialects are fundamental to the blending of regional identities falling under the collective “Arab” term.  As such, designating the Universal Arabic Sign Language, which has already been created, as the standard is easier said than done.  The following is a list of sign languages currently in existence in the Arab world:

  • Levantine Arabic Sign Language
  • Iraqi Sign Language
  • Yemeni Sign Language
  • Egyptian Sign Language
  • Libyan Sign Language
  • Kuwaiti Sign Language
  • Saudi Sign Language
  • Qatari Sign Language
  • Emirati Sign Language
  • Omani Sign Language

Arab Deaf Communities

There are even local village sign languages, such as Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language.  Obviously, a standard sign language would overlook the differences exhibited by the dialects, such as regional words or sayings.  According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, enforcing such a language would impose other pressing issues:

“Arab deaf communities, with the support of international organizations, argue that deaf students face enough learning problems as it is, despite being fully conversant in their local sign language. Introducing Unified ASL in schools would create two challenges: it would essentially force deaf students to learn another foreign language, and it would introduce a stiff formality that is absent in everyday deaf communication.”

Such a change would yield similar results if Modern Standard Arabic, or fus-ha, became the official “street” language across the Middle East.  Everyone’s needs would not be met, and some would be forced to re-study the language.

The Cochlear Implant

There is another alternative for individuals interested in solving hearing loss, though it is neither simple nor easily attainable. The cochlear implant, a device used to help the Deaf hear, requires an expensive and complicated surgical procedure; a process that must occur before the age of five.  For one family in Gaza city, this is not a realistic option.

“Gaza’s deaf children are a marginalized part of the community due to the government’s indifference.”

“The cost of the operation is way beyond the means of Mohamed el-Assar, father of two Deaf girls, who is a construction worker making less than $300 a month. Costs for the operation range between $25,000 to $30,000, in addition to another $10,000 for travel and rehabilitation expenses… Unfortunately, many Palestinian deaf children lost their opportunity of retrieving their hearing sense because they were not able to travel or because of the lack of money.”

Given the circumstances, Assar’s daughters are forced to live between home and the hospital, without any knowledge of Arabic sign language. The Mostafa Sadic Rafie school for deaf children is also not an option.  The school, already crammed with 350 students, is a difficult commute for the family.  Sadly, Assar and his girls are not the only families suffering from this issue.  As explained by Isra Namey in her article on the issue, “Gaza’s deaf children are a marginalized part of the community due to the government’s indifference.” Click here to read more of Namey’s piece.

For those families interested in “treatment” options, the financial cost is a pressing issue. The alternative is to provide better services to the Deaf community in the Middle East, especially schools.  Children should be taught to celebrate their identity in addition to learning how to communicate with those around them.

Identity is a topic of debate in deaf communities around the world.  For some in American deaf culture, being Deaf is something to be embraced, and is not seen as a disability.  While this is a novel concept for those who can hear, it is a mindset that should be introduced to the Arab world. Doing so will encourage acceptance and a drive to improve sign language education.  While this process will take time, money, and determination to make a difference, the impact will be worth it.

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