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Innovating for accessibility: Sign language at the University of Geneva’s FTI

I. Strasly, P. Bouillon, M. Starlander & F. Prieto Ramos

FTI, University of Geneva

What is accessibility and why does it matter to translators?

Accessibility is about making sure that people with disabilities and/or with special needs have access to society on an equal basis. Accessibility has become a major concern of modern societies and has led to the adoption of new legal provisions on non-discrimination and equal opportunities for all. In 2006, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) became the first binding human rights treaty to address accessibility (see Broderick 2020). By ratifying it in 2014, Switzerland committed to its full implementation. This means that public entities have to strive to become accessible to all, including people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing. In Switzerland, this builds on national legislation that promotes accessibility, like the Swiss Disability Discrimination Act of 2002, which states that communication has to become accessible.

Translators and interpreters have a crucial role in lowering language barriers, making content accessible beyond the cultures who produced it (see, for example, Bernardini et al. 2020). In line with these developments, Geneva’s Faculty of Translation and Interpreting (FTI) introduced French sign language to its BA in Multilingual Communication in September 2021, and will add Italian sign language in 2023. These innovations were developed in the context of FTI’s newly created Centre for Barrier-Free Communication, with the financial support of the FTI, the Swiss Federation of the Deaf and the Procom Foundation.

Why did we integrate sign language in our programmes?

We had two main goals in setting up this programme: improving the inclusion of Deaf people by making the workplace more accessible, and making information more accessibleto a wider public by training communication specialists in sign language. The new FTI degree specifically supports the implementation of the above-mentioned legal frameworks, in particular by raising public awareness of Deaf people, their needs and their culture. Furthermore, there are not enough interpreters in sign languages to meet the increasing demand in the French-speaking and Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland (see ARCInfo 2018). Training students who can work in the communication field with sign languages thus responds to the needs of the Swiss market, and contributes to a more accessible society.  

This is the first university degree to offer a complete curriculum in sign language in Switzerland. The aim is to provide students with strong foundations in topics related to sign language, communication and technology, so that they can then pursue their academic path up to the PhD level, either in translation, interpreting or accessibility. We also expect to contribute to the development of new teaching resources, and promote research in this field.

In total, 11 new courses per language combination have been created. Students will also be trained in related accessibility and digital skills. Most classes are taught by Deaf people. This helps to make the university accessible to a more diverse population and enables hearing students to immerse themselves in a Deaf-centered environment. You can learn more about the programme and conditions for admission by visiting the dedicated webpages: https://www.unige.ch/fti/fr/faculte/departements/dtim/enseignement/languesignes/

Additionally, a separate part-time programme (Certificat complémentaire en langue des signes française / Complementary Certificate in French Sign Language) is also offered to applicants who hold a BA in Multilingual Communication from the FTI (or an equivalent degree), and who wish to add French sign language to their language combination. The curriculum and admission conditions are also available online: https://www.unige.ch/fti/fr/enseignements/certificats-complementaires/. If you have a degree in translation including French, you may be eligible.

Why did our first students choose the programme?

Cindy: “As a professional in cultural production for more than 15 years, the Covid period was a time of questioning for me, as it surely was for most cultural actors. What to do when we are no longer considered essential and when cultural venues are no longer accessible? What will be the future of the performing arts after the lockdown era? It became apparent that I needed to open other doors and create new opportunities for a new career. This BA seemed to be a great way to get back to university and so that I could open myself to other options for my future career.”

Sophia: “In France, few schools allow for the study of sign language and almost none combine a curriculum with the learning of other languages. As a French citizen, the University of Geneva offered me the opportunity to continue learning French Sign Language. By choosing the University of Geneva, I am sure I will get a high-level education at the heart of an international city and I can prepare myself for careers related to sign languages as well as those related to vocal languages.”

Margaux: “I was intrigued by the idea of training in translation and interpreting in sign language. I was curious to see how it was done. I like the visual side of this language: learning a sign language seems to be very different from a spoken language and being a rather manual and visual person, I felt that it would suit me well. It’s also a language that involves human contact and exchange, which I really like. I didn’t see myself working in Belgium, where I previously studied. I don’t know in which country I will work yet, but I knew that I wanted to continue learning sign language, in order to include it in my future work.”

Chloé: “What made me decide to enroll in the programme offered by the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting at UNIGE? First of all, the fact that it is offered by a University and a Faculty of recognised excellence. Secondly, this course is part of a remarkable project, aimed in particular at resuming the teaching of sign language at a university level after a long period of interruption. When I heard about the creation of this course, I jumped at the chance and I am very happy to be able to take part in this initiative!”

Annick: “This is the only training currently existing in French-speaking Switzerland that could lead me to become a sign language interpreter in the future. Even if this is not necessarily my end goal, it allows me to study sign language at a university level, i.e. in greater depth from a linguistic point of view than in the courses taken in local associations (the courses were also good, but the pace is rather slow, since it has to be adapted to a larger public)”.

Léa: “In January 2021, I received an email announcing the opening of a training course in sign language and I did not hesitate to enroll. I knew the University already because I had studied there and I was passionate about the idea of studying sign language, I knew that this institution was reliable and that I would benefit from a serious education that I could use later on, in the job market. Since the beginning of the academic year, I have often been asked why I am learning sign language, while during my previous studies no one asked me why I wanted to speak Spanish. However, in both cases, I was driven by the same desire to understand other speakers and to use a language other than French.

Chloé: “I chose to enroll in the sign language course offered by the FTI, as I would like to become a French sign language interpreter. I am also studying translation (Italian, English and French), so when I heard that I could take the Sign Language certificate, I didn’t hesitate for a second! Now I can study all the languages that will be useful for my work in the future!

References

ARCInfo. 2018. Langue des signes: manque d’interprètes pour les sourds en Suisse romande. Available from: https://www.arcinfo.ch/articles/suisse/langue-des-signes-manque-d-interpretes-pour-les-sourds-en-suisse-romande-727130 [Last accessed: 01.11.2021]

Bernardini, Silvia, et al. 2020. Language service provision in the 21st century: challenges, opportunities and educational perspectives for translation studies. In: Sijbolt Noorda, Peter Scott, Martina Vukasovic. Bologna Process beyond 2020: Fundamental values of the EHEA. Bononia University Press, 2020. pp. 297-303.

Broderick, Andrea. 2020. Of rights and obligations: the birth of accessibility. In: The International Journal of Human Rights, 24:4, 393-413, DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2019.1634556

Swiss Federal Council. 2002. Federal Act on the Elimination of Discrimination against People with Disabilities (Disability Discrimination Act, DDA). Available from: https://www.fedlex.admin.ch/eli/cc/2003/667/en

United Nations. 2006. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Available from: https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html

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