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The Constitutionalisation of Sign language in Slovenia

Neža Šubic, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Law, Maynooth University & Delia Ferri, Professor of Law at the Department of Law, Maynooth University

On 27 May 2021, the Slovene National Assembly (Državni zbor) adopted an act amending the Constitution, inserting in the constitutional text (Ustava Republike Slovenije (URS)) a new provision, Article 62a, which affords constitutional protection to Slovene sign language and guarantees the use of Italian and Hungarian sign languages. The Article follows Article 62 on the ‘Right to Use One’s Language and Script’, and corresponds to Article 11 (providing for the official languages in Slovenia: Slovene, and Italian and Hungarian in the municipalities where Italian and Hungarian national communities reside). It stipulates that:

Free use and development of Slovene sign language shall be guaranteed. In those municipalities where Italian and Hungarian are also official languages, free use of Italian and Hungarian sign language shall be guaranteed. The use of these languages and the status of their users is governed by law. Free use and development of the language of deaf-blind persons is governed by law.

The amendment to the Constitution comes at a turbulent time for the relatively young Slovene democracy. The majority coalition is so fragile that deputies failed to confirm the agenda for the ‘regular May’ session of the National Assembly. Thus, the vote had to be taken at a so-called ‘extraordinary’ session, which is a rather unusual environment for a Constitutional change. The current political turmoil did not prevent the National Assembly from unanimously voting in favour of the amendment (78-0, with 12 deputies absent), comfortably achieving the required two-thirds majority vote of all 90 deputies (Article 169 URS). In this respect, the amendment can be regarded as a joint effort of all political forces, signalling a consensus over the need to protect and promote sign language, and, we contend, more broadly the rights of persons with disabilities. Notably, the proposal to initiate the procedure for amending the Constitution was made by the former centre-left Government, led by Marjan Šarec, in 2019. After Šarec’s resignation in January 2020, the new centre-right government of Prime Minister Janez Janša, formed in March 2020, advanced the proposal further until the vote. 

This constitutional amendment tallies with the constitutional protection afforded to the rights of persons with disabilities, and gives flesh to the general non-discrimination clause. Interestingly, it also moves the protection of sign language (already provided by legislative measures) up in the hierarchy of law, and arguably prioritizes it. It is an evident move to enhance compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Slovenia ratified in 2008. The Convention, which aims to ensure full and equal enjoyment of human rights for persons with disabilities, sets out a range of obligations related to the protection of sign language users’ rights, and the promotion of sign language, in provisions on Accessibility (Article 9), Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information (Article 21), Education (Article 24), and Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport (Article 30). 

It is worth recalling that the Slovene Constitution contains a number of relevant provisions both on the rights of persons with disabilities, and on language rights. Article 14 (Equality before the Law) stipulates that everyone shall be guaranteed equal human rights and fundamental freedoms irrespective inter alia of language and disability. Notably, the ground of ‘disability’ was not included in the original wording, but was added in 2004. Further, Article 52 focuses on the rights of persons with disabilities, with specific regard to their right to vocational training and education. In addition, the rights of persons with disabilities, including their language rights, have been protected by an array of legislative measures, which for the most part predate the CRPD. Among those, the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities Act focuses on the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of disability, and on measures for equalizing opportunities for persons with disabilities, but only rarely refers to sign language explicitly. Most significantly, the Act Regulating the Use of Slovene Sign Language, which entered into force in 2002, defines sign language as the language of communication of Deaf persons (Article 2). It protects the right of Deaf persons to use sign language, and their right to have access to information using techniques adapted to their needs. It also regulates the scope of the right to a sign language interpreter, as well as the manner of exercising this right (Article 1). The legal framework is complemented by a range of policy measures such as the Action Programme for Persons with Disabilities 2014-2021, as well as the National Programme for Language Policy 2014-2018. The latter considers Slovene sign language a native language of Deaf persons, and consequently a minority language in Slovenia.

Yet in spite of a relatively elaborate legal and policy framework, the rights of the Deaf and Deafblind have not been fully realized. As recently as May 2021, the Slovene Advocate of the Principle of Equality issued a report on Deaf persons in the education system, noting that Deaf persons are still discriminated against in the provision of education in Slovenia, in particular as programmes are not provided in Slovene sign language, and the provisions for the right to sign language interpreters are limited. The hope clearly is that putting sign language on a constitutional footing would help to resolve some of the shortcomings highlighted by civil society and organisations of persons with disabilities. It cannot be overlooked that it was the Slovene Association of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing which first brought the initiative for the constitutional amendment to the Government in 2018.

The constitutional provision is also, as noted before, a means to better comply with the CRPD. The Government, in its initial proposal, considered that such a development would provide the constitutional basis for adopting further measures enabling Deaf persons to enjoy the rights guaranteed by the CRPD. Further, it is a way to address the issues that the CRPD Committee, the treaty body set up by the Convention, raised in 2018 in its Concluding observations on the initial report of Slovenia. Namely, the CRPD Committee expressed concern at the ‘insufficient provision by public authorities at the national and municipal levels of sign language […]’, and the ‘lack of implementation of the Slovene Sign Language Act’. It recommended that Slovenia, inter alia, develops standards on the use of sign language, and its implementation throughout the public and municipal sectors. It also suggested the ‘[r]ecognition of Slovene Sign Language as an official language in the State party, the training of sign language and tactile interpreters and greater awareness of Slovene sign language among teachers, public authorities and parents’.

Article 62a is significant in that it emphasises the obligation of the State not only to respect, but also to protect and, crucially, fulfil the right of Deaf persons to use sign language. Furthermore, while constitutionalising sign language may not be a necessary condition for, nor a guarantee of, the protection of the rights of Deaf persons in practice, it does have symbolic value and an awareness-raising function. Constitutionalising sign language can signify a ‘paradigmatic shift’ in the approach to disability. The positioning of Article 62a in the Chapter on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms points to an acceptance of the human rights model of disability, as endorsed by the CRPD.

This provision is however not just about a paradigm shift in the conception of disability. In fact, given that it follows Article 62 on the right to use one’s language and script, the amendment explicitly brings sign language within the remit of linguistic diversity that exists in Slovenia. The amendment falls short of explicitly putting sign language among official languages of the country, although the joint reading of this provision with Article 14 leaves little doubt about the official status of sign language (an argument to this effect has been made by Pavlič et al already prior to this constitutional amendment). It is also true that Article 62a does not explicitly recognize sign language as a minority language, despite it being labelled as such in the National Programme for Language Policy 2014-2018, and in the initial Government proposal for the constitutional amendment. In this respect, it is to be noted that Article 30(4) CRPD itself does not explicitly conceptualise Deaf people as a linguistic minority. Ball argues that ‘an essential feature of the CRPD’s model is the emphasis on balancing the preservation of the Deaf individual’s linguistic identity while achieving accessibility to public services for sign language’. In fact, Article 30(4) CRPD, which mandates State Parties to recognize the individual identity of Deaf persons, leaves the door open to the explicit recognition of the right of Deaf communities to be protected as cultural minorities, but does not impose it.

Also, the constitutional amendment fails to explicitly recognize the Deaf community’s distinct culture and identity. It should be noted that the initial proposal for the amendment defined Slovene sign language as ‘the language of the community of Slovene sign language users’. It considered sign language to be an indication of Slovene and cultural belonging. The expert group seemed to have considered this ‘definition’  to be redundant in the Constitution, perhaps missing the broader symbolic value of recognition of the Deaf community as such. However, despite these drawbacks, Article 62a seems somewhat underpinned by the recognition of Deaf culture, which is explicitly mentioned in Article 30 CRPD.

Slovenia is not the first European country to consider a ‘constitutional’ solution. Portugal, Hungary, Finland, and Austria have all included a provision on sign language in their respective constitutions, albeit with different emphases. However, constitutional recognition does not automatically result in stronger protection of Deaf persons (De Meulder), and, as yet, constitutional developments in these four countries have only rarely been referred to by the CRPD Committee. In the case of Austria, the Committee commended this State Party for enshrining sign language in the Constitution (para 5), but nevertheless made further recommendations on protecting the rights of sign language users (paras 41-43).

On the whole, the success of the Slovene constitutional amendment in enhancing the protection of the rights of Deaf persons will depend on the adoption of further implementing measures at legislative and policy level, and their application on the ground (Ribičič). The fractured state of the Slovene political landscape might prove to be a significant obstacle in giving practical effect to the provision, but cannot be an excuse for lack of further action. It also remains to be seen the extent to which the CRPD Committee will welcome this constitutional development and whether it will consider it to fulfill the obligations laid out in Articles 21 and 30 CRPD, and in other CRPD provisions[1].

Suggested citation: Neža Šubic and Delia Ferri, The Constitutionalisation of Sign language in Slovenia , Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Jun. 29, 2021 at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2021/06/the-constitutionalisation-of-sign-language-in-slovenia/


[1] This blog post has been written within the remit of the project ‘Protecting the Right to Culture of Persons with Disabilities and Enhancing Cultural Diversity through European Union Law: Exploring New Paths – DANCING’. This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement No 864182). The authors wish to thank Iztok Štefanec for his helpful comments.

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Published on June 29, 2021
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