General information

Deaf non-natives not only have to learn Dutch. They also have a right to acquire Flemish Sign Language. The already existing Dutch and Flemish Sign Language courses, however, seldomly meet their needs: courses focusing solely on Flemish Sign Language or not meant for non-natives/deaf people, also Dutch courses have often not been made accessible for deaf students. As such, acquiring Dutch or Flemish Sign Language is not easy for deaf migrants. Nevertheless, acquiring language is essential in achieving full participation in society and smoothly being provided assistance when needed. Therefore it is vital for a service to raise awareness amongst its employees on deaf people’s particular needs with regard to communication in order to make the needed adjustments to the way in which service is provided to deaf people.

Firstly, in adjusting a service to meet deaf people’s needs, one should opt for the correct communication method and make use of interpreters who fit any particular situation best. Most deaf migrants know one or more written languages and sign languages. Depending on their language knowledge and wishes one could opt for communication in writing or using sign language or combining both. Deaf persons know in fact various written languages but may still require interpretation during conversations on migration.

Moreover, adjusting the communication methods being used to the deaf migrant’s evolving language level is essential.

Sign Language

As many (national) sign languages exist, the chances are that a particular migrant does not know VGT. However, he/she may know another national sign language or International Sign (which is a mixture of different sign languages emerging when deaf sign language users meet one another within an international context). In case a particular migrant does know another sign language and prefers to communicate that way, a deaf interpreter cooperating with a hearing Flemish Sign Language interpreter should be involved. Of course it is important to book a deaf interpreter who knows the deaf migrant’s native sign language too. In case such an interpreter cannot be found or if the deaf migrant either makes use of an unknown sign language or does not know any language at all, support by a deaf interpreter can still be useful. Many researchers have shown the value of a deaf interpreter in such a situation: communication will run more smoothly than trying to communicate with the deaf migrant making use of only a hearing Flemish Sign Language interpreter. Also, the presence of a deaf interpreter will positively impact the quality of the service being provided at that time. Even when the deaf migrant fully or partially knows Flemish Sign Language, a deaf interpreter will still add value to the conversation, as hearing Flemish Sign Language interpreters often do not fully understand deaf migrants’ ways of signing or vice versa due to which the communicated content may lack information.

Written Language

Many deaf people prefer to communicate in writing instead of using a spoken or signed language. In writing a deaf person can directly communicate with the service provider, if of one the following conditions or met: a particular migrant knows one of Belgium’s national languages, or a text-to-speech interpreter is being used to translate the service provider’s spoken input into the written language known by the deaf migrant and vice versa.


In Flanders, barely any research has been conducted on deaf migrants. Only a student at KU Leuven did both her bachelor’s and master’s research on the integration process of deaf immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, as well as on the added value of using an interpreter when communicating with them.

Van Schil, E. (2016). Deaf immigrants in the province of Antwerp. An overview of the most important elements within the integration process. KU Leuven.

In its approach to integration the Flemish government repeatedly marks the importance of learning Dutch as a second language. Van Schil (2016) notes that the government is lacking commitment to offer deaf migrants opportunities that are equal to those provided to hearing non-natives. This can be seen in the following issues, among others:

  • Deaf migrants have no opportunity to attend courses teaching Dutch as a second language that meet their needs. Consequently, they are often forced to either attend some course that does not match their primary language level or go find a suitable learning path on their own. Although deaf migrants, in comparison to hearing people, are already provided with less opportunity to learn a language in class or incidentally, only one class per week is being organised which considerably limits their chances to practice in class. Classes would be more attractive and/or accessible to deaf students when multiplying the actual classes being organized (at least twice a week) and adjusting the learning trajectory so that it meets their needs much more (an employed teacher per language level).
  • • Apart from that, it is very odd that the only course teaching Dutch as a second language to non-native deaf people has not been allocated a budget to hire enough teachers or buy computers. Instead, the course is carried out by volunteers and the acquisition of teaching facilities is depending on donations.

Both deaf non-natives as well as their coaches are experiencing various problems during integration:

  • Miscommunication often occurs. The reasons are twofold. First, professional organisations are not able to make use of (liaison) interpreters due to a lack of budget. Second, legislation states that deaf migrants not coming from within the EU are not granted the right to interpreting hours during the first 5 years of them staying in Belgium. However, during integration deaf migrants are in need of support by interpreters in order to quickly embark on their integration process as well as to make it run smoothly and in an honest way. When, at the moment, deaf migrants wish for support in communication, they will still often be relying on family members, third persons or volunteers.
  • Residence conditions as stated by law are also severely limiting the opportunity to be provided with temporary support when needed. In Belgium, arrived deaf migrants only have a right to professional support with regard to employment (assistance in ascertaining one’s trajectory and labour mediation). The services providing this support make sure certified Flemish Sign Language interpreters are present to communicatively support them during conversations. Nevertheless, also this particular sector is still in need of (liaison) interpreters.
  • Neither the tests included within the employment research and intake procedure nor the ones deciding upon one’s language level before being able to embark on a course on Dutch as a second language, do not meet deaf migrants’ needs.
  • In Flanders, only one Centre for Adult Education is offering courses to deaf migrants. In that, many deaf migrants lack the existence of a course which they can attend close to home. Consequently, learning Dutch in class is very hard for them, since it is impossible for many to weekly make it to Mechelen.
  • Deaf non-natives can only sporadically attend citizenship courses that meet their needs. Some deaf migrants are being exempt from the course ‘due to medical reasons’, but the problem of not being able to attend one is being caused by a lack of suitable courses instead.
  • At the moment, the standard procedure offered by various support services does not include getting deaf migrants in touch with deaf clubs, although deaf clubs are needed in improving the integration process.

It is remarkable how deaf migrants in the region of Antwerp state not to have been discriminated in any way based on their origin. In looking for a job – even when supported by a professional service such as VDAB – or in being employed they do, however, feel discriminated based on their deafness. Professional coaches mention to be familiar with that problem. Employers lack knowledge on deafness and, therefore, hiring a deaf person frightens them. This issue could partially be solved by offering more information on the matter to labour mediating services on the floor, as argued by Van Schil (2016). Although assistance in ascertaining one’s trajectory and labour mediation are overall successful services, some deaf people still feel discriminated in being employed in an inclusion company.

Van Schil, E. (2017). Research into the surplus value of using (deaf) sign language interpreters in communication with deaf immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Flanders. KU Leuven.

To sign language interpreters worldwide deaf migrants are part of a distinct target group. This group includes deaf asylum seekers, deaf refugees, and deaf people belonging to the first, second or third generation of deaf people residing in our country over a longer or shorter period of time. Because of the increasing migratory flows, a continuously increasing number of deaf people has arrived in Belgium and Flanders in particular. Parallel to hearing migrants, deaf migrants too have to adapt to a new culture, new customs, values and norms. They are expected to adjust in that way in order to ease their integration into society and successfully coexist with the native population. Apart from that, deaf migrants in Belgium and around the globe, are facing even more challenges. Not only do they have to adapt to a new environment in which they have to find a job and feel at home after a while, but they also have to learn two new languages: the local spoken and signed language.

This means that deaf migrants having arrived in Belgium will daily be confronted with at least two new languages: Dutch and Flemish Sign Language (VGT) or French and Langue des Signes de Belgique Francophone (LSFB). They have to try to acquire both within a social environment that completely lacks suitable structures for deaf people to successfully integrate into society. Knowledge of the national or regional sign language of resp. the country or region in which he/she will stay, facilitates both communication supported by sign language interpreters as well as communication between deaf migrants and other deaf people and, as such, deaf migrants’ integration into the (Flemish or Walloon) Deaf community. Deaf migrants who are ignorant of any sign language, who only communicate using a Home Sign System or who are completely unaware of any notion of language, face the most difficulties when trying to integrate.

Van Schil (2017) mentions that any deaf asylum seeker who has arrived in our country hoping to obtain refugee status, already faces a severe problem when being interviewed by the Dienst Vreemdelingenzaken (Service of Foreigners Affairs, DVZ) or during the hearing included in the asylum procedure: governmental services are not able to find a suitable interpreter to support the deaf person during his/her first conversations in our country.

Deaf as well as hearing interpreters state to adjust their interpreting strategies in order to meet the needs of the target group. Some examples are:

  • Interpreting more visually
  • Using signs belonging to another sign language
  • exemplifying things more
  • adjusting spoken components
  • Using spatial features more often
  • Adapting or avoiding finger spelling

Most interpreters use more iconic signing to make it easier for the target group to understand the signed input. However, a lack of knowledge about the deaf migrant’s background can cause difficulties in using this interpreting strategy. In order to be able to use the correct iconic signs the interpreter at work needs to be aware of the living conditions within the deaf client’s country of origin. Although vital, interpreters often lack that knowledge. Communication with the target group can be eased by making use of not only specific strategies but also International Sign.

However, with regard to the target group, both hearing and deaf interpreters mention the importance of making an informed choice on interpreting simultaneously or consecutively. Consecutive interpreting can be important in order to continuously have eye contact with the deaf migrant. As such, the interpreter can respond to the client’s reactions, see his/her facial expressions or nods, … Also, one deaf interpreter states to be continuously switching between the simultaneous and consecutive mode depending on the complexity of the topic being discussed, the added information and examples that are necessary to bring the message across, the deaf migrant’s knowledge on particular sign languages or International Sign, and so on. The consecutive mode is also appropriate when the deaf client regularly asks to repeat something or mentions that he does not understand something.

Every interpreter who was being interviewed experiences the added value of support by deaf and hearing sign language interpreters when communicating with the target group. However, they also unanimously agree upon some vital problems causing team interpreting to still be a rare phenomenon in communication with deaf migrants, which are:

  • A lack of information on the linguistic and cultural background of the client
  • Gaps in legislation
  • A lack of training for and recognistation of deaf interpreters