Sign of the times

Sign of the times

2010. 02. 01.

Hungarian deputy Adam Kosa, the first ever deaf MEP, wants to use the 2010 European year of combating poverty and social exclusion to promote the rights of the disabled, particularly hearing-impaired people. “Besides being a gratifying responsibility, being a pioneer in the European parliament goads me,” he says.

Having been born into a deaf family, the centre-right MEP has had to overcome what to most of us consider to be an unimaginably debilitating condition. But the Budapest-born deputy insists that his deafness does not present a handicap to his work. The 34-year-old EPP member, elected in last June’s European elections, explains how he manages to function in a world of speech. “I communicate by my native language, Hungarian sign-language,” he says. “Hungarian sign-language is the mother tongue for 30,000 of my compatriots. Just as any other MEP, an interpreter helps me. The only difference is that first he or she has to interpret me to a ‘sounding’ language and then to English or another official EU language.”

Kosa says he was asked to stand as an MEP not as a politician but as leader of an NGO, the Hungarian Association of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons. “I still think that people most trust those who work between themselves,” he says. “Through my NGO work, sign language and the difficulties facing Hungarians with impaired hearing have become really visible. Our problems, cultural values, abilities and wishes are not hidden anymore.”

The key question about disability, he says, is that the “social approach” to the issue has to change. “It means making the education and training system more accessible for young and adult disabled people,” he adds. “One of my aims is to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities because this is the only way they will be able to become appreciated, independent members of the society. I’d also like to deal with the issue of sign language. I want it to be the 24th official language in the EU. As an MEP, I have the opportunity to get to know member states’ policies about people with disabilities. I want to use my position to start an international dialogue about good practice and the problems they face. I intend to lobby governments to make the real changes which are necessary.”

He recalls his grandmother as being a great source of strength, helping him throughout his schooling, adding, “She would sit down with me and work through whatever was on the school curriculum at a given moment as it was impossible to follow lessons on the basis of lip-reading alone.”

Kosa graduated in law from Pazmany Peter University with the sole ambition of ensuring sure that ‘legal certainty’ should apply to deaf people “every bit as much” as to those whose hearing is not impaired. “I have been closely involved in advocacy on behalf of the deaf for 13 years now,” he says. “Standing up for their rights is the cause to which I have dedicated myself. I believe that unless people with hearing disabilities are allowed to participate fully in society we can never hope to make good decisions.”

He adds, “The very fact that a deaf member has been elected to parliament might pave the way for improved accessibility, particularly in the information and communications field, to become a practical reality this year.”

According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are approximately 70 million deaf people in the world. Like Kosa, between five and 10 per cent of deaf people are born into a deaf family; the majority are brought up as the children of hearing parents.

Kosa says not every country regards the “linguistic and cultural differences” of the deaf as something “positive” to be valued in their own right. “This is why their respective sign-languages are not always officially recognised,” he adds. “In such countries deaf people cannot achieve their potential and live full and meaningful lives. They are left out of the world of knowledge and work and do not enjoy financial security. Breaches of human rights are a frequent occurrence whilst the prevailing practice in the fields of employment and education is unacceptable.”

Kosa, who sits on parliament’s employment and social affairs committee, says the governments of only 28 countries worldwide have recognised sign-language as a “fully-fledged” means of communication on an equal footing with conventional spoken languages. “I am pleased to say that Hungary is about to follow suit in granting official recognition to sign-language,” he says.