It was nine years ago that a deaf teenager from Durban took the national and provincial health departments to court, asking for an order that would allow him to take South African Sign Language (SASL) as a matric subject.
Kyle Springate, a pupil at Westville Boys’ High School, had to abandon part of his case: it would have been legally impossible for the department to comply as he was due to write his final exams in two months’ time.
But the second part of Springate’s application, which he persisted with, was for the court to force the department to declare SASL an official school subject.
Even though Springate did not write SASL as a matric subject all those years ago, this year, for the first time, deaf matric pupils will be able to write SASL as a subject. This was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa during his maiden State of the Nation address last Friday.
SASL was introduced as a subject for deaf pupils in 2015, also as a result of the court case, the national director of DeafSA, Bruno Druchen, said this week.
The organisation supported Springate in the court case, brought by the Legal Resources Centre on his behalf in the Pietermaritzburg high court.
Druchen said Ramaphosa’s announcement was a huge triumph for deaf schoolchildren and showed that the government was taking SASL seriously.
“You, and every other hearing person, have Afrikaans, English or any other language as their first language and now deaf children will have SASL, their mother tongue, as their first language,” he said.
“So this will mean that, for the first time, by understanding the linguistic features in their language, they will understand the rules of the language and use it fluently. It does not [necessarily] mean that if you use sign language you understand the structure of the language,” said Druchen.
Druchen, who is deaf, spoke to the Mail & Guardian through an SASL interpreter.
Druchen said that deaf pupils have often found it difficult to obtain matric passes that would enable them to study towards a bachelor’s degree.
He said the biggest challenge, especially in matric, had been that deaf students only wrote one language. The ability to write SASL as a first language and chose another language as a second language would give them a better chance to obtain a pass that would enable them to register for a bachelor’s degree.
To obtain such a pass, matric pupils must pass their home language with at least 40%, pass four high-credit subjects (such as a language, accounting, dramatic arts or maths) with at least 50% and pass two other subjects with at least 30%.
Because Springate was unable to write SASL as a subject in his matric year, he ended up taking dramatic arts to obtain a bachelor’s pass.
Nyeleti Nokwazi Nkwinika knows all too well the struggles of being a deaf pupil.
The University of the Witwatersrand student, who was the first deaf student to graduate with a master’s degree in SASL in 2016, said she was pleased that sign language had been given the “right status” as a mother tongue.
When Nkwinika matriculated from Parktown High School for Girls, she and four other deaf pupils had the services of two interpreters.
She did SASL as a subject only in grades eight and nine, after which it was discontinued because there was no external examiner to mark the subject. She had to substitute the subject with speech and drama.
She said being a deaf pupil and having to learn in a “foreign” language had its challenges, but she was able to overcome them thanks to her excellent teachers.
“There were good teachers in my schooling years, both in primary and high school. In primary school there were a lot of good English books, which I read … But sometimes I would not understand the English used and I would look up the word in the dictionary or the interpreter would explain to me in sign language,” she said.
In an article published on The Conversation website last year, Druchen, in collaboration with Wits SASL lecturer Ruth Morgan and senior linguistics lecturer Andrew van der Spuy, wrote about their experience of supervising Nkwinika.
They highlighted that Nkwinika had struggled with her master’s dissertation in English because she is deaf. The two academics wrote that many deaf people battle with written language.
“SASL and English are differently structured. This can make it hard to learn for deaf people who’ve only ever used sign language to communicate. It’s also very difficult to learn written English when one has never heard the language or used it for conversational purposes,” they noted.
Nkwinika said being able to take SASL as a matric subject would allow deaf pupils to reach their full potential.
“I think the implementation of SASL as a subject in matric is a huge victory and an opportunity for deaf learners to learn in their own language. This will enrich their knowledge of SASL as their mother tongue and improve their performance.
“They will be able to go to tertiary institutions and do whatever they dream of doing … they used to be channelled to do vocational subjects,” she said.
But it was difficult to find quality teachers who were fluent in SASL, she said adding that hearing teachers who taught deaf pupils should dedicate themselves to learning sign language instead of trying to take shortcuts.
“Remember, deaf pupil are not idiots and they can tell if the information does not add up,” she said.
Druchen agreed that the lack of quality teachers who understand SASL is an obstacle in schools dedicated to deaf pupils. Because some teachers were not good at SASL, they could not teach maths or any other subject fluently. Biology is not being taught in deaf schools, for example, because there are no teachers who know how to teach it in sign language, he said.
The director of inclusive education at the department of basic education, Moses Simelane, said the question papers for the SASL exam would be set on DVD making use of signing, and that pupils would record their signed answers using a webcam and submit them for marking.
According to Simelane, SASL was only introduced as a subject in schools just over two years ago because the curriculum had previously only existed in pockets and had never been formalised.
He said there was also limited local academic knowledge and expertise in SASL, particularly in linguistics, as only two South African universities offered courses in SASL.
Simelane added that, because SASL was not regarded as an official language, it had lagged behind developmentally.
But this could change soon. Last year, Parliament’s constitutional review committee recommended that SASL be given official status and that the Constitution be amended to include SASL as the country’s 12th official language.
Next month, education quality assurer Umalusi is releasing a report titled The Introduction of South African Sign Language as an Examinable Subject.
The study was commissioned to help Umalusi, as the quality assurer for SASL home-language examinations, to understand how deaf pupils are assessed and to identify what resources and materials are needed for this, as well as potential national moderators and evaluators.