Urban Sky Trust

The Status of Sign Language in South Africa

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South Africa has large language diversity and is home to a great variety of language and culture groups – the South African Deaf Community fall into this diversity as they have a language of their own that affords them the ability to communicate and at present that communication is mainly between themselves. Deaf culture in South Africa has its own history, shared values, social norms, customs and technology which have been transferred from generation to generation. The term "Deaf" is written with a capital "D" - in the same way as one refers to "Xhosa people" using a capital "X".

Hearing loss in general is the impairment of the sense of hearing to an extent that it interferes with communication and affects the social, emotional, educational and vocational aspects of the life of an individual. This can happen to you and I. Hearing loss also affects a person’s speech which leads to deaf people been looked upon as dumb. But this is not the case as the only thing a deaf person cannot do is hear. Equal rights are entrenched in the constitution for the 11 official languages used by 99% of the South African population. But these equal rights are not instilled for South African Sign Language users who are included in this percentage.

Sign Language though has been accepted as the official language of instruction in EDUCATION for Deaf learners which helps overcome the critical situation of unemployment and illiteracy which are high in the Deaf South African Community. This status makes South Africa one of the few countries to have a so called “LEGAL” recognition of sign language.

Yet, it is also makes South Africa a country that does not conform to the basic standards of “recognizing” a language, as  South African Sign Language is an incompletely emerged national standard language as some of the features of identifying a standard language include: a recognised dictionary, recognized grammar which records the forms rules and structures of the language, a recognised institution promoting the use of the language and with authority to define the norms of it’s use and mainly the use of the language in public life as translations of sacred texts and the teaching of the language’s standards in school.

The South African constitution states: "Everyone has the right to use the language and participate in the cultural life of their choice, but no one exercising these rights may do so in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights" and "All people shall have equal rights to use their own languages".

Where are the Deaf peoples rights included here when they have no access to interpreters to assist with complaints and compliments in public service environments such as health services, tertiary educational institutions, legal and judiciary services, media especially visual media such as TV, general information points, employment, counseling services, banking facilities, public meetings and conferences, religious events, social events, police stations, correctional services, theatrical performances, parliamentary proceedings and telephone services.

It is necessary to understand that sign language is a Universal language that has small differences in most countries and is not a language that needs to be translated into many languages such as French to English to Portuguese. So in South Africa it means that the 9 Bantu languages, Afrikaans and English all speak the same language in the Deaf community and even though each individual community might have some slight sign variation, it is understood by the majority in their language.

So who is responsible for ensuring that a plan of action is made to meet the requirements and needs of the communities at stake? Statistics show that 20% of all disabled persons in South Africa have a hearing loss and estimates state that over 600 000 South Africans use South African Sign Language. Statistics also show that majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents.

So who uses sign language – Parents, to facilitate bonding between the Deaf child and themselves. Siblings, to provide a signing environment for the Deaf sibling. Relatives, to give a Deaf child a sense of belonging to the extended family. But what happens to them when they leave their sheltered environment of home and face the world searching for independence if we the community have not implemented means of alternative communication with them been SIGN LANGUAGE.

Research is also showing that the hearing community is using sign language to communicate with new born babies in order to improve communication skills with children as young as six months. This language is now becoming a part of every household which is a break through as in future generations this language will be looked upon as a norm and justify sign language becoming a subject available in the standard educational curriculum as an extra subject just like the Bantu languages are today.

No official body has been appointed to enforce a language unit to develop Sign Language in South Africa to ensure that the Deaf community can communicate effectively in public and be integrated into a normal society. South Africa must realise that South African sign language plays a vital role to their daily existence and ability to live an independent life and they should be given the same opportunities as you and I.

Is it national level, provincial level, or local government that are going to make these decisions and take the necessary steps to ensure that the deaf community is catered for in their surrounding communities? And what budget has been allocated to implement a form of communication between the Deaf and the Hearing. In this instance cost should not be a determining factor in ensuring that the Deaf can communicate with the Hearing and vice versa. Sign language to a Deaf person is what the white stick is to a blind man.

It should be seen as a necessity such as for example first aid training in the corporate sector where one in every five employees has to know the basics of first aid training. For every so many employees one individual should or could be taught South African Sign Language. Alarm bells are probably ringing “Where is the money going to come from to educate the public and corporate sector in Sign Language?” Why not through the Skills Development Levies paid to government monthly. Here there is a large amount of funding available to begin a programme educating the different business sectors in the basics of sign language. It also creates job opportunities for people within the deaf community who will be able to instruct and interpret these lessons and empowers a community as it opens doors to independence for people with hearing disabilities.

In closing I hope that this will not go unheard and that the concerns and needs of the Deaf community will at some time in the near future be met.

The status of sign language in South Africa
By: Janet Pereira