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Iceland’s “Magga” Shines as First Deaf Parliament Member

November 3 2010 | by

Sigurlín Margrét Sigurðardóttir served in the Parliament of Iceland, or Alþing, from 2003 to 2007.  She is the first deaf person to serve in Iceland’s national legislative body.  During her term in the Alþing, she introduced bills to recognize Icelandic Sign Language as an official language in the country, and to caption all domestically produced television shows.

On her first day in the Alþing, Sigurðardóttir, better known to Icelanders as Magga, delivered her inaugural speech from the parliament floor on live TV in Icelandic Sign Language, also a first in the Alþing.

Today, Magga teaches sign language and is studying for an advanced degree in sign language at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. She continues to fight for recognition of Icelandic Sign Language, increased accessibility to information for deaf Icelanders, and the right to Sign Language interpreter services within the country.

Q: Magga, your inaugural speech was an inspiration to deaf people all over the world.  What can you tell us about that day?
A:
It was my first day in office, and it was a moment to remember for me and others when I delivered my maiden speech on live television.  It was the first time Sign Language was used in the Alþing pulpit. In my speech, I signed, “Allir menn skulu vera jafnir að lögum” — “Everyone should be equal before the law.”

Q: As the first deaf Member of Parliament, what was your biggest challenge?
A:
At all the committee meetings I had interpreters, which was easy, but things became a bit more difficult in the parliament room.  It was solved by putting the interpreters in an adjacent room.  They stood there and interpreted in front of a camera, which transmitted the video to a laptop on my desk.  When I made speeches in the pulpit, two interpreters followed me up there.  This worked very well, but it is tiring to follow interpreters on a computer screen and if I ever go back to the Alþing I will demand having interpreters in front of me in the parliament room.  It gives more feedback in real situations like this and one experiences more.  There is a lot going on in the room when someone is speaking and often there are interruptions and so on that I don’t want to miss out on.

Q: What efforts did you make on behalf of the deaf and also people with other disabilities?
A:
I introduced three bills for recognition of Icelandic Sign Language, and also a bill to caption all domestically produced television material including news, shows and documentaries. (The bills did not pass.) Today most members of the Alþing know about Icelandic Sign Language and understand why there is a request on captioning for domestically made T.V. material.  Sign Language got a lot of attention during this time, and there now is a committee via the Ministry of Education, which is supposed to make an action plan on sign language covering the life of a deaf person.  Among the things this committee is suggesting is that Icelandic Sign Language will be recognized, and the service to deaf and hard of hearing people should be increased immensely.

Q: What are you doing with your time these days?
A:
I’m studying Icelandic Sign Language, in my first year at the University of Iceland (Háskóli Íslands).  Last year I was [majoring in] Political Science and decided to change over to Sign Language. I’m also teaching Sign Language in the practical course at the university. I’m quite busy and that is the way I like to have things.

Q: Do you think you’ll ever return to the Alþing?
A:
No. My vision is rather to get a job in one of the ministries – that is my dream.  I can say with conviction that in the short period of time I was in Parliament, that the power to change is really within the ministries – by the people who work there year in and year out without elections. If Icelandic Sign Language is recognized, which I believe it will be in one or two years, then it needs to be [regulated] by the ministry, and I could see myself being involved in that.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story said Sigurlín Margrét Sigurðardóttir was the first deaf member of a national parliament of a modern democratic country. She was the first deaf MP in Iceland, but other deaf parliament members have served elsewhere including in the United Kingdom.

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