Communication, education and integration of deaf refugees

By attending DIMA’s language and integration courses in sign language and communication services, deaf refugees experience fewer barriers, become empowered and self-confident and regain their identity.
Good Practices

Communication, education and integration of deaf refugees

By attending DIMA’s language and integration courses in sign language and communication services, deaf refugees experience fewer barriers, become empowered and self-confident and regain their identity.
A group of people smiling at the camera and signing "I love you" in sign language

The project in brief

"In my home country I didn't have the opportunity to go to school. Thanks to DIMA, I finally got access to education. Now I can write short sentences in German and communicate in Swiss German Sign Language. And recently I found a job."

- (Deaf refugee from Afghanistan)

The project is implemented by DIMA - Education, Communication and Integration for the deaf and the hard of hearing in Switzerland. It began in 2004 and is currently ongoing.

For almost 20 years DIMA has been developing and offering specialized courses (e.g. Swiss German Sign Language) and services for deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees. We aim to provide education, the ability to communicate successfully and support their integration into Swiss society. By creating innovative projects our goal is to remove barriers which deaf refugees are confronted with. By networking we build awareness and knowledge about this target group.

By attending our specialized courses in German, Swiss German Sign Language, everyday commonsense knowledge, computer basics and communication skills the deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees have access to more information. They also are able to develop their knowledge more easily and become empowered. In addition, the chance of finding a job is greater.

The deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees come into more contact with other deaf refugees and deaf Swiss people and thus are less isolated. They also feel more comfortable and more welcome in Switzerland.

Besides language knowledge, information about rules and Swiss culture are important parts of our courses. As a result, deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees are supported in their integration into society.

In addition, our communication services enable deaf refugees and people with no hearing impediment to communicate more easily. For communication with deaf refugees not only sign language Interpreters are needed but also deaf interpreters.

Due to our networking and sensitization programs more public bodies know about the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees. This has an impact on the fairness of the asylum process and on how fast deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees obtain access to appropriate offers. Furthermore, deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees are made more visible.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees have a contact point/address, where they are understood and get information and support in Sign Language.

Main activities of the Good Practice

For almost 20 years DIMA has offered specialized courses and services. These support deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees while the asylum process and their integration into the Swiss German society is taking place. Our offers include courses for German, Swiss German Sign Language (every country has its own Sign Language), communication, integration, general education, job-coaching and computer basics.

As deaf people need specialized material to learn a new language and become educated, we also develop our own specialized teaching material. Some of our learners have not had the chance of going to school in their home country and some of them even could not learn a language fully in their childhood. Our teachers – most of them are deaf or hard-of-hearing – are experienced in teaching people who are not familiar with what education is. With our system these people become empowered. The fact that most of our teachers are deaf themselves enables the deaf refugees to get into contact better, feel understood and have identification figures.

By attending our courses deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees have the chance to get into contact with other deaf people. This makes them less isolated. Besides the courses we also offer several services. These aim to achieve successful communication between deaf refugees and people with no hearing problems. In addition to our courses and services we also implement other projects. Here we aim to fill existing gaps and to find ways of communicating successfully. For example, we developed a Sign Language Certificate which gives deaf refugees the chance to test and show their language competence, which is very important for their integration.

We also investigated Easy Sign Language, which is often used in communication with deaf refugees, and created several barrier-free information videos in Easy Sign Language. Last but not least, for almost 20 years we have been involved in networking and sensitizing the public about deafness, sign language and migration.

"Through DIMA I gained access to Swiss society. At DIMA everything is explained to me in Sign Language. In this way I understand better, how everything works here and I feel more confident."

- (Deaf refugee from Eritrea)

Elements which helped facilitate the implementation of the good practice

  • The Disability Equality Act (Behindertengleichstellungsgesetz) which has been valid in Switzerland since 2004
  • The accreditation of our courses for deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees for the integration agenda in two cantons of Switzerland
  • Over the past few years Swiss society seems to be more open to disabled people in general. Diversity in general seems to have increased.
  • Due to the war in Ukraine about 300 deaf refugees flew to Switzerland within a short time. This made people even more aware of deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees. This meant our courses and services were more in demand. It also gained exposure in the media.
  • Deaf and hard-of-hearing people urgently need to be supported by deaf and hard-of-hearing people. These people have a deeper understanding of deafness and a higher competence in communicating with the deaf and hard-of-hearing people from all over the world. Therefore, the fact that more than 50 percent of the employees at DIMA are deaf or hard-of-hearing is an important factor for the implementation of the project.
  • With professional fundraising we finance our innovative projects. Our projects fill existing gaps and are flexible in meeting needs.

Partners involved

We are working together with various partners.

What challenges were encountered in delivering the project and how were they overcome?


Procentually there are usually only a few deaf refugees migrating to Switzerland per year. That has different effects: Many people who work with refugees are not yet in contact with deaf refugees this means they have no experience with this target group. Another effect is, that in some parts of Switzerland the amount of deaf refugees is so small that it is not possible to offer specialized programs close by. These deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees would need more money to buy travel tickets to attend the courses and services in another region. However, not all communities/cantons are ready to pay these additional tickets.

Deafness is a disability, which is not seen at first sight.

In Switzerland deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees are statistically not recorded.

What happens is that the IV (disability insured) says that the migration office is responsible for deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees and vice versa, which means that deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees quite often fall between two categories.

There is also the misconception that there is only one Sign Language in the world and that all deaf and hard-of-hearing people are able to read and understand a text in the written language of their home country.

The integration offers for hearing refugees are usually part of a cantonal agenda. Communities can easily book courses for refugees, knowing that the canton will pay for it. Our specialized courses for deaf and hard-of-hearing persons have not been on these lists for quite some time. This had the impact, that deaf refugees sometimes had to wait longer, till they could attend a course. And sometimes they could not attend a course at all.

Since the deaf and hard-of-hearing people require smaller classes to make the same learning process, our courses are more expensive than courses for hearing refugees.

In Switzerland and other European countries, Sign Language was forbidden until the 1980s.

How they were overcome

We overcome the challenges by:

  • Backing networking and sensitization for over 20 years.
  • Financing our projects through fundraising.
  • Improving constantly the quality of our courses and services.

Results of the Good Practice

  • Deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees experience more situations in which they are understood.
  • They can expand their skills in German and Swiss German Sign Language easier and get better access to education.
  • They have been strengthened in their identity.
  • They have more social contacts and are less isolated.
  • They know their rights and obligations better and understand better, how Swiss society works.
  • They know better where they can get support.
  • More deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees have found work.
  • Public authorities are more aware of the special situation of deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees.
  • Public authorities have a contact address to ask questions about deafness and sign language.

In what way does the good practice meet one or more of the four objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees?

Objective 2: Enhance refugee self-reliance

By learning German and Swiss German Sign Language in specialized courses, deaf refugees gain more access to information, are supported in their integration, know their rights and obligations better. They can pursue their rights or demand them, and their chances of finding a job are higher. Our communication services enable deaf refugees and people with no hearing impediment to communicate more easily, which also enhances the self-reliance of deaf refugees.

People looking at a map of Swotzerland

Next steps

For almost 20 years we have been constantly extending our offers as needed. In the context of the war in Ukraine, we developed for example new courses and offered a hotline in sign language. We will continue to do so in the future.

Furthermore, we are in the process of writing a letter of recommendation describing what deaf refugees need in the asylum process so that they receive a fair and equal asylum process. This document is in draft form. Our goal is, that our recommendations will be taken into account in the asylum process in Switzerland.

We will be conducting interviews with various deaf refugees to find out more about their experiences and needs. This is planned for 2023/24.

We are continuing with public relations. Our plan is to make a short film about deaf refugees. We are also continuing our networking, so that as many deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees as possible can benefit from our specialized offers.

We will also develop a teaching module on the topic “My strengths”. The aim of this material is that deaf refugees get to know their resources and strengthen their self-confidence. Last but not least, this also supports them in making a contribution to society.

We will fight to ensure that integration courses for deaf refugees are included in the integration agenda in more parts of Switzerland.

We are committed to ensure that deaf refugees will be statistically recorded. This makes them more visible.

Are there areas in which support would be required to continue and/or scale up your good practice?

It would be helpful if we get more financial support from the Public Sector.

It would be helpful if the public sector knew more about the specific needs of deaf refugees.

It would be helpful to expand and strengthen the worldwide network of organizations that support deaf and hard of hearing refugees.

Submitted by

Sarah Guidi, Project manager and assistant to the director of DIMA, [email protected]

Contact the project

[email protected]