Reading the Signs: Diverse Arabic Sign Languages

The Arab world's hearing impaired debate what language to use.

California has one sign language interpreter for every 46 hearing impaired people. Saudi Arabia has one for approximately every 93,000.
Out of the Middle East’s 350 million people, over 11 million have a disabling hearing loss, comparable to other regions. But services for deaf citizens have not kept pace. The dearth of sign language interpreters is partly a problem of inadequate recruitment and training, and partly a reflection of broader obstacles for deaf citizens.
One obstacle is agreeing on just what an Arabic sign language should look like. Just as there is a single formal Arabic for written and spoken communication and myriad spoken dialects, so too is there a formal, Unified Arabic Sign Language and a slew of local variations. Some interpreters advocate for greater use of Unified ASL in schools and professional settings, but their efforts have faced significant pushback. 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.
On the ground, local seems to be winning. Saudi Arabia recently created the first ever Saudi Sign Language Dictionary. A church in Cairo is translating and recording the Bible in Egyptian sign language, and activists in the UAE traveled the country earlier this year to teach people about Emirati sign language.

This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.