A case for sign language, Newsline

Judith Madi

Dear President Cyril Ramaphosa,

It has been a pleasure watching your coronavirus announcements on television where you were accompanied by an SA Sign Language (SASL) interpreter. However, regrettably, most of the other news about the virus was conveyed without an interpreter.

This sums up the government’s attitude towards the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. Interpretation services are not always available. It looks like everything for the deaf community is done in half measures and at a snail’s pace, as if it was a favour and not a basic human right.

I chose to write this open letter today (September23) because it is an important day. It is the International Day of Sign Languages. The UN General Assembly resolved that on this day we should all pause momentarily to reflect on the plight of the deaf community in general, and the importance of sign language in particular.

Accordingly, the UN resolution recognises that “early access to sign language and services sign language, including quality education available in sign language, is vital to the growth and development of the deaf individual”. Just like hearing people, language forms a critical component of a person’s identity and is important for purposes of socialisation.

This got me thinking about the situation in our country, with a population of deaf and hard-of-hearing people estimated to be 4 million. Yes, a lot has been achieved, while some key outstanding matters are holding us back. In terms of achievements, after intense lobbying, SASL was recognised as deaf people’s primary mode of communication in the Constitution and as a medium of instruction for educating deaf children.

Although the teaching of sign language was started by missionaries more than a century and a half ago, proper traction was only gained after the development of a curriculum policy to address SASL was published in 2014. This enabled teaching in SASL at the country’s 43 deaf schools to start in 2015.

Although there are more than 10000 deaf pupils in the schooling system, very few of them progress to Grade 12. Last year, a paltry 101 deaf pupils passed matric. The low completion rate is because deaf education is complex, given years of neglect.

In many instances, hearing and qualified teachers who are not fluent in SASL are used, assisted by deaf-­unqualified teachers. In other instances where the hearing and qualified teacher is fluent in SASL, they may not be familiar with the nuances of deaf culture. All these shortcomings impede learning.

Also, to make matters worse, deaf pupils are mostly demotivated. There are a few successful role models and many pupils battle with the psychological effects of social exclusion from mainstream society.

One of the ways to address this is by making SASL the 12th official language. The deaf community raised this nearly 15 years ago, but we have seen depressingly little progress. As you will appreciate, if SASL is not an official language, it means no quality education and jobs. Our pleas are seemingly falling on deaf ears.

Also, there are many gender-based violence victims within the deaf community. Many do not report it because it is near impossible to get help at the police station, and the court process can be overwhelming.

Furthermore, we welcome the finalisation of the SASL Charter. It seeks to address issues that relate to “communication, access to information, facilities, and social justice for the deaf community including the type of service provided by SASL interpreters in general”. This is not such a complicated process, but it took about three years to finalise.

Notwithstanding, I do not intend to give you the impression that we the deaf community are sitting waiting for the government to do everything for us. We are prepared to do the hard work, while simultaneously lobbying for change. That is why I left my full-time job to start the Neema Foundation for the Deaf.

With 23 years’ experience in deaf advocacy, I realised given the multiplicity of challenges faced by the deaf community, that there was a need for an organisation focusing on women and the family. There is a huge gender-based violence issue within the deaf community that is not receiving attention. Safer South Africa Foundation and the City of Johannesburg are assisting a lot in this regard.

Also, children, especially those from rural backgrounds, are stigmatised. Some parents hide them because they believe their child is bewitched. So, we need to talk about this more often.

And we must popularise SASL. Often, as the deaf community, we organise events and workshops to discuss the challenges we face. But we discuss among ourselves. We need to be out there and engage the hearing community by partnering with the government, business and like-minded organisations to encourage people to learn SASL.

Let me conclude by aligning myself with Modiegi Njeyiyana, a deaf academic who studies SASL linguistics at Stellenbosch University, who, when decrying the lack of language development, said: “A language makes you a part of a culture. It gives you access to society. So, I feel now is our time to reclaim what was taken away from us.”

* Madi is the chief executive of Neema Foundation for the Deaf

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of IOL.