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Deaf voices need to be heard: Recognition of SA Sign Language is an important first step


Jabulane Blose is the CEO of the South African National Deaf Association and was instrumental in developing Virecom.

Too often, the rights of the deaf community are overlooked. The lack of communication facilities excludes deaf people from important public conversations. But the time is coming when the deaf will enjoy equality, thanks to the increasing likelihood of sign language’s official recognition and a homegrown technological solution.

It is not a stretch to say that deaf South Africans are less concerned with hearing than they are about being heard. In all spheres of life, deaf people find it hard to be understood by those who can hear, no matter how clear their expression.

During the government’s hard lockdown periods in 2020, many deaf South Africans experienced a deeper sense of isolation. They were unable to access public services and counselling that were available to them in pre-Covid times.

Deaf school learners particularly were at a disadvantage. Online learning was not an option for them. When schools reopened, the masks that teachers were obliged to wear made it impossible for deaf children to read their lips and facial expressions. Consequently, some learners decided to stay at home. This raises a concern about their future prospects and, moreover, their rights as children.

The coronavirus amplified the issue of a lack of communication facilities for the deaf. Without these facilities, deaf people are excluded from the public sphere and important conversations.

Many small victories

This is not to say that South Africa has not made some strides when it comes to empowering the deaf population. There has been evidence of a change in attitude and perception toward us. Interpreters on television news have given us access to current affairs.

Prominent universities such as Wits, Stellenbosch and Free State offer sign language courses. First-year medical students at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Ga-Rankuwa are required to learn sign language. It is encouraging to know that future doctors will have an understanding of our language and deaf culture. Learners can study sign language right up to matric and be examined on it too. Icasa’s draft disability codes issued in 2020 will provide us with national relay services once it becomes regulation.

Last September, the Pan South African Language Board launched the Sign Language Charter. It seeks equitable access to information and services, promotes South African Sign Language as an official language and for deaf people to participate in all spheres of life. It serves as an example of what institutes can do to empower deaf people. If they pledge to follow the charter and implement those issues, then the deaf community will benefit.

All of these small victories can culminate in the biggest win of all — making South African Sign Language an official language. After many years of hard lobbying from numerous stakeholders, this dream is close to being realised and hopefully it will unlock access to resources. It will help us feel that we are finally a part of human society.

To communicate is to be human

When deaf people want to access services, we would need to communicate using a third party. This takes away our independence and confidentiality because we have to disclose all information to the accompanying person.

Without access to communication, deaf people are not wholly human. 

When a deaf rape survivor cannot report an incident to a social worker or the police, she is rendered powerless. When a deaf child cannot read the lips of a teacher because of a Covid mask, she is left helpless. Deaf people are harbouring a lot of anger that is unaddressed. This is a concerning matter as frustrated deaf individuals take out their frustrations on loved ones and colleagues.

We need a deaf education indaba where all relevant stakeholders get involved so we can understand what needs to change and find ways to move forward.

We have a solution already

One of the ways we can move forward is through homegrown video remote interpreting (VRI) technology. Virecom, developed and endorsed by the South African National Deaf Association, is an online application that remotely connects deaf people to qualified sign language interpreters in real-time. It enables us to communicate effectively and gain equal access to information and services.

The idea was born in 2015 as one of the ways of protecting and promoting deaf people’s human rights. It was not fully realised at the time as funding and government support was hard to come by. But when the coronavirus led to a nationwide lockdown, the VRI project resurfaced. We sat down with developers, asking them to customise the application in a way that it would be akin to Zoom for deaf people.

We have two main target groups — the deaf and public service entities. Virecom can provide integrated access to all public services. The technology is the best opportunity we have for deaf people to understand what is happening in hospitals, courtrooms and classrooms and to have our voices heard and understood by the public. The success of Virecom depends on how receptive government is. They need to realise that for deaf people, Virecom is a battle half won.

Nothing about us, without us

For a deaf person to enjoy a full human life, we need accessibility that empowers us. And that means including us in sociopolitical discussions that directly affect us.

For far too long, we were seen as a community that was deaf, dumb and needing help. That is a welfare approach. We are far removed from that. This largely stems from people’s disability phobia.

The government understands that we need to be socially empowered. If public discussions and decisions are being made without us being consulted first, we will not be a part of that. The process would need to start again.

Sign language is our mother tongue. VRI can be our voice. Let us be heard. DM


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