Listening to the world of the deaf

Growing up in Durban, she started her schooling like most other children until she started to lose her hearing at age seven. She struggled for a while because she wasn’t sure what was happening to her - and nor was her family. ‘My grandmother thought I was a stubborn girl because I wouldn’t respond when she called out for me,” says Duma.

Her family didn’t know how they could help her. As time went on, people stopped talking to her and her hearing continued to deteriorate.

Eventually her problem was diagnosed and she became a boarder at Kwathintwa School for the Deaf, near Hillcrest in KwaZulu-Natal, when she was 12 years old. ‘Initially it was very difficult for me to adjust. Seeing all those hands moving as they signed was very confusing for me,” Duma says.

Her experience of first being able to hear and then going deaf was, she says, like entering another world. ‘To wake us up in the dormitories, the matron used to flick the light switch on and off,” she recalls. To get somebody’s attention you’d have to stomp the wooden floor in the classroom. To call somebody, you’d have to tap them on their shoulder.

And when trying to communicate anything, you’d have to face each other.

It was her early experiences as a deaf learner, taught by teachers who couldn’t relate to her situation, that persuaded her to choose teaching as a career. ‘When I was in school the hearing teachers would concentrate on the ‘clever kids’, the kids that understood them better,” says Duma. ‘It’s easier for a deaf teacher to teach a deaf child.”

Duma teaches Grade 2 pupils at St Vincent’s School for the Deaf in Johannesburg.

Duma believes society has a long way to go before it truly accommodates the needs of the deaf: ‘The history books should also feature deaf role models so that deaf children can be inspired by them,” she says. ‘There needs to be a change at tertiary level in the education system. These institutions need to cater for the deaf because the technique used to teach deaf people is not the same as for teaching hearing people.

‘I think everybody should learn sign language. Hearing people find it difficult to communicate with us, they tend to leave us out of their discussions. This is why deaf people become ill-informed,” Duma adds.

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