Libyan Electoral Sign Language Lexicon Facilitates Deaf Empowerment

Updated: August 2021
Woman with red headscarf learns a new sign

For Deaf Libyans, language barriers are a profound challenge to full participation in political life. In Libyan elections – as in many elections worldwide – speeches, voting materials and other essential electoral information are not translated into sign language. This creates an alarming gap in access to information for Libyan Deaf communities, and opens a subsequent possibility for manipulation by others.

“It all started in 2012 when a cousin of mine paid me an unexpected visit. He took me to a polling center and told me to put a tick mark front of a certain name on the ballot,” recalls Ramadan, a Deaf voter in Libya. “At that time I did not know what was going on around me, and there was no sign language translation. No one tried to explain. My voting right was used, because I knew nothing about the elections. The same thing happened to many people in the Deaf community in Libya.”

Part of the ongoing difficulty in translating electoral materials into sign language in Libya is that there were no documented, standardized signs for political and electoral terms. In turn, sign language interpreters were not fully trained in election terms and concepts, so even when called upon to translate, their interpretation of election materials was unclear for Deaf communities.

To address the severe information gap, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) partnered with Libyan experts in sign language, particularly prominent Deaf leaders such as Ramadan, to develop a lexicon of more than 300 political and electoral terms in sign language. The lexicon was then shared with Deaf schools, communities and networks across the country.

In late 2015, a cadre of interpreters and Deaf leaders were trained in how to use and teach others about the sign language lexicon. Ramadan was among them, and later led a training hosted by the Hope for the Deaf Association in Libya. “This is just the first of many trainings we will be delivering,” Ramadan said. “Every Libyan has the right to this information, and all Libyans have the right to raise their voices, even if they are Deaf.”

The lexicon is available as a PDFa video, and a smartphone application for AndroidWindows and iOS. Though created in Libya, it is easily adaptable to other North African countries such as Morocco.


Originally published on on 21 July 2016 and reposted with permission. 

Image credits: International Foundation for Electoral Systems