/ 29 September 2022

Deaf deserve to be heard

Recognition of South African Sign Language as an official language will help bring deaf people in from margins of society. (Photo by Luis Gandarillas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

September is South Africa’s National Month of Deaf People, which aims to promote awareness of the rights of deaf people in South Africa. It also marked the annual International Week of Deaf People, held from 19 to 25 September in commemoration of the first World Congress of the Deaf held by the World Federation of the Deaf in September 1951. This was an important event because it focused the attention on deaf people around the world who came together and integrated the diversity of cross-cultural groups and sign languages of various countries. 

We must continue to raise awareness about the challenges of deaf people who share the same values, norms, goals and experiences as individuals who can hear. This includes deaf education through sign language and building international relationships to lobby for the human rights of deaf people. 

For many years, the World Federation of the Deaf has promoted the human rights of deaf people, especially regarding deaf education, language, disability and deafness. But the rights of deaf people are often denied and violated because of societal prejudices and false assumptions. 

As with many other smaller groups, the natural thing for big communities to do is to push them aside. And this is very true of the deaf community. Accessibility is our main barrier as a deaf community. Access to information, education, social events and access to the world around us. 

We receive information in a visual way. It’s not about “helping the poor deaf”, but rather creating the space where we can be true equals.

I’m glad that the Deaf Federation of South Africa’s theme for 2022 is “Building Inclusive Communities for All”. This is particularly relevant, especially as far as South African Sign Language (SASL) is concerned. Prejudice against sign languages remains due to the lack of adequate research or standardisation and a failure to recognise that deaf people also have a language that they use to communicate. 

The attitude towards sign language is very poor, and I believe through research and evidence we can change that attitude, as well as our culture and see that it is just as important as any other culture. Across the globe, many are still advocating for this basic right to be acknowledged. 

More recently, the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) has launched a public campaign to draft the South African Sign Language Charter. This is because section 6 (5) of our Constitution requires all South Africa’s languages, including sign language, to be recognised, respected, affirmed and promoted. We as a deaf community have been silenced for more than three decades in our fight to have our language recognised, and to receive quality deaf education. 

This is happening despite the fact that other recognised languages in South Africa have fewer users than there are people who use sign language. Sign language should have been recognised at the drafting of our new Constitution. Although it is long overdue, the recent announcement that SASL will become South Africa’s 12th official language is laudable. 

While this latest development is definitely a step in the right direction, the big challenge for SASL to become the 12th official language is the standardisation for increasing its use and spread in the country. Fortunately, it has already been used as a language of learning and teaching at schools for the deaf. This was implemented through the South African Schools Act 84 of 1996 for public schools by the department of basic education, but only after a deaf learner took the department to court. Schools for the deaf then implemented the court’s decision on SASL as a home language in 2015. 

PanSALB is in the process of implementing a standardised version of SASL in partnership with the National Institute for the Deaf and their digital dictionary, which will mainly focus on being used in schools and universities. This is good because deaf education needs a lot more support than what’s available right now.

This is a challenging process because of sign language variation in South Africa. In my recent master’s study at Stellenbosch University, I researched lexical variations and language change in SASL. There are various reasons for these variations, including the apartheid-era separation of schools for the deaf based on the languages and ethnolinguistic backgrounds of families and as well as on the basis of the mother tongues of black, coloured, white and Indian children. 

During apartheid, SASL developed in silos because cultures weren’t allowed to mix. For example deaf Zulu children’s sign language was based on their culture and had different signs for the same word from, say, Tswana children. Away from their families, deaf children then naturally developed signs in isolation in their respective schools for the deaf leading to the variations we see today. 

When we became a democracy, those variations changed over time due to contact between schools. A form of language standardisation will likely emerge through time. Given that we are a bit behind those countries that already recognise deaf people’s language as an official language, it would indeed be a historic occasion if SASL becomes South Africa’s 12th official language. As deaf people, we will be able to contribute to the improvement of quality deaf education for generations to come.   

Susan Njeyiyana is a deaf lecturer in the department of general linguistics at Stellenbosch University and teaches South African Sign Language acquisition as an additional language to hearing students.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.