Much-needed change in deaf education must be ‘led by the deaf’

Much-needed change in deaf education must be ‘led by the deaf’
Modiegi Njeyiyana, pictured above, says that only when deaf education is deaf led, will authentic transformation take place in deaf education. (Photo: Rebecca Pitt)

Learners argue that the Department of Basic Education adequately doesn’t understand how deaf education and South African Sign Language work together, to the detriment of teaching. 

Modiegi Njeyiyana lives in two worlds: “We [deaf people] have spoken language culture around us, plus the deaf [culture].”

Njeyiyana, who has been deaf since she was three, recently obtained her Master’s degree in linguistics from Stellenbosch University, and she plans to pursue her doctorate. Her achievement is a story of success for the deaf community, which struggles to access education past Grade 12.

Films such as Sound of Metal and CODA have helped make deaf culture a bit more known to the hearing world. But although they shed light on deaf culture, the hearing world will never be able to experience deaf culture as they do.

This reality has not yet spilled into the education system. And because deaf education is not led by the deaf, it cannot help uplift the community, says Njeyiyana.

Negative attitudes towards the deaf community linger, she says. “There is certainly not enough awareness around sign language and [deaf] culture. This is something that we struggle with until today.”

Modiegi Njeyiyana, pictured above, investigated the variation of South African Sign Language within the Dominican School for the Deaf in Wynberg, in the Western Cape. (Photo: Supplied)

Njeyiyana talks through a combination of signs that have their own grammar, syntax and vocabulary. She communicates in South African Sign Language (SASL), which she has been teaching at Stellenbosch University since 2018 — and an interpreter translates.

Njeyiyana, a mother of two hearing children and whose husband is hard of hearing, is one of more than 200,000 who speak SASL, including those who are hearing and hard of hearing.

National deaf organisations, such as the SA National Deaf Association, indicate that there are more than four million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the country.

Njeyiyana’s research — which investigated SASL variation within the Dominican School for the Deaf in Wynberg in the Western Cape — is important for millions of deaf South Africans, especially because academic literature and support for SASL remain poor.

Slow progress

SASL has made some progress in the country, albeit slow. For example, SASL is considered a home language in schools and, since 2015, it has been offered as a subject from pre-school to Grade 12. Now, 43 schools offer SASL and, in 2018, the first cohort of deaf learners matriculated in SASL.

In 2017, the Constitutional Review Committee of Parliament also recommended that SASL be added as South Africa’s 12th official language. This has not yet been done.  

According to Njeyiyana, these staggered strides have, sadly, been ineffective. “Deaf education is still not deaf-led” and the education system for the deaf is ill-equipped.

“There is still so much that needs to be done,” she says.

Movies seem to be getting this right. “[CODA] was a deaf story. That kind of story can only come from the deaf community itself, and that is real authenticity. That brings awareness,” Njeyiyana explains, adding that it makes a difference when a deaf actor plays a deaf person, because it comes from a deaf perspective.

Similarly, deaf education should come from the deaf perspective, she says.

Only when SASL started being offered as a subject in schools in 2015 did the government realise that teachers didn’t have enough knowledge about the language, the linguist points out.

Njeyiyana, who learned sign language through her peers when she joined a deaf school, speaks from experience.

“In the classroom, the teachers couldn’t sign the way that we would sign to each other as deaf kids. They signed completely differently because they … spoke in Setswana and used [few] signs,” recalls Njeyiyana, whose home language is isiZulu.

“We have to think about the future of our deaf kids and deaf education,” she states.

Deaf learners are treated as if they have learning disabilities when, in fact, the problem is that a linguistic foundation has never been laid, Njeyiyana explains. Deaf learners do not get the communication support they need. This is because the Department of Basic Education doesn’t understand how deaf education and SASL work together.

Unfortunately, “the powers that be don’t understand this, or [they don’t know] how to implement this because it is not deaf-led,” Njeyiyana says, adding that even the vocabulary in sign language is determined by hearing people.

She says although few deaf learners have tertiary qualifications, deaf education should be led by those who have academic experience and understanding, and are native signers.

Since the current system focuses solely on training teachers in SASL, there needs to be more budget put towards properly training current teachers of the deaf. They, too, should be trained by a deaf person, Njeyiyana adds.

“Hearing people don’t quite understand [the deaf world]. They always go completely off track and teach the wrong things,” she says. “Deaf education is very specific and needs additional support and training and work to understand the deaf child.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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