Israel is home to some 750,000 people who are deaf and hard of hearing, approximately 15,000 of whom use sign language.
Sign language is a natural visual language expressed through the hands, face and body. It is not a universal language, and the deaf community of each country generally has its own native sign language.
Thanks to the fact that deaf people can communicate through visual language, which does not require the sense of hearing, they do not consider themselves to be disabled or impaired, rather a community with the characteristics of a minority group: a common history, cultural and social activities and a common language – sign language.
Sign language is the only language that a deaf child can acquire naturally, with no specific training. The acquisition of a natural language is a necessary element for proper social-emotional and cognitive development. Also, as has been proven in studies, the acquisition of sign language as a natural language very much promotes learning the regular spoken language. Many deaf persons consider sign language to be their native language, even if they did not acquire it in infancy.
The linguistic study of sign language began in the 1960's and today linguists around the world recognize sign language as a complete and full language.
Meir and Sandler (2004), who studied Israeli Sign Language, found that the utterances in this sign language include three main categories: handshapes, movements and location. Each of these categories contains a list of utterances. These utterances are expressed through different handshapes, possible types of movement and their possible locations. All of the language's signs may be constructed through the use of these elements, just as vowels and consonants comprise the words in regular spoken languages. Facial expressions constitute an essential component of the linguistic structure of sign language. Without them it is impossible to fully convey a message in sign language.
The status of sign languages differs from country to country, and the rights of deaf people are also affected by the status of sign language in each country. The deaf population in Israel suffers from social exclusion. The oppression of this population is mainly manifested in their inability to realize social rights, including the right to official recognition of their natural language and to a complete education in this language.
Deaf people have a right to participate equally and actively in society in all areas of life; in order to fully utilize these rights their language - Israeli Sign Language - must be recognized. Official recognition of sign language as a language will reduce these barriers somewhat, albeit it will not do away with it completely.
Yael Kakun Gali Egelberg
Executive Director Community Relations
The Institute for the Advancement
of Deaf Persons in Israel