Our Culture, Our Value: The Social and Economic Benefits of Auslan

July 28, 2022

Progressive Economics

The value of language is often taken for granted in both research and policy. Yet language is critical to wellbeing, identity and social inclusion, and vital to economic prosperity. Australia, as a multicultural society, has sought to establish a civic framework that acknowledges the importance of language and cultural identity.

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), and seeks to support the usage of Auslan, the language of the Deaf, Deafblind and hard of hearing community within Australia. However, while Australia is home to a large Deaf community, and like many other comparable OECD economies has acknowledged the role and benefits of sign language, Auslan is not afforded the same status as are other sign languages within their respective jurisdictions.

Notably, Auslan is a ‘community language in Australia’, it has no legal recognition, as is increasingly happening for other sign languages employed within both advanced and emerging nations. Indeed, sign languages have official recognition within 72 nations presently. It is also arguable that Auslan has not benefited from the same nurturing environment that has been afforded to legally recognised sign languages in other countries. This has resulted in a dearth of investment and research into Auslan by comparison, at the expense of the Australian Deaf, Deafblind and hard of hearing community. Auslan is a living language like any other and requires investment and support to meet the needs of the Australian Deaf community.

The benefits of Auslan should be self-evident, yet, on current trajectories, its value is under-recognised by policy makers. This, combined with the lack of viable cohort data creates an ongoing risk of future underinvestment in Auslan. Similarly, limited knowledge of the direct and indirect benefits of Auslan and their social return on investment (SROI) hinders the advocacy, engagement and support that is essential to the furtherance of Auslan in Australia.

There is a significant evidence base supporting the assertion that sign language competence is associated with better learning outcomes and employment outcomes (see Humphries et. al 2014, Hall 2017 for worthwhile summaries of the extant findings). Sign language competence is also associated with better cognitive development and better school and tertiary education completion rates among the Deaf community (Ibid, 2014). These benefits will be explained further within this report.

The economic benefits of improved educational outcomes and labour market participation rates are significant: even modest improvements of these among the Deaf and hard of hearing community would result in substantial benefits for the wider Australian economy.