The deaf community has been ignored long enough


On Tuesday, 27 June 2017, the Constitutional Review Committee submitted a recommendation to Parliament that South African Sign Language (SASL) be given official recognition. This is not only going to benefit the Deaf community but society as a collective.

The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB)’s view on this is that “South African Sign Language, like any other official language, is a fundamental human right that should be treated equally”.

Speaking at the constitutional review committee in Parliament, CEO of PanSALB, Dr Rakwena Monareng said, “We have made several crucial calls to the government to prioritise sign language, like any other formal language, and efforts have, for a very long time, drawn a blank. This was done on the basis that we believe it has been violated and marginalised compared to other languages.”

Jabulane Blose, former CEO of the South African National Deaf Association (SANDA) highlighted that people who are not deaf treat Deaf people like children. Blose said, “A conversation often becomes difficult when a hearing person realises that the person they’re talking to is deaf.”

He further stated: "At that point, the hearing person will cringe and start appearing 'welfarist' in the sense that you are treated like a child in need of extreme care, and this effectively ends the conversation. This quite riles me.”

The Chairperson of the Joint Constitution Committee and member of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), Lewis Nzimande confirmed, “The report, which has the committee’s recommendation on this matter has been submitted to both Houses for consideration.”

He further stated that the report for the SASL to be recognised as an official language would have to be debated in the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.

“Once the Houses accept the recommendation, it now becomes a resolution of Houses. Thereafter, the resolution will be communicated to a relevant structure, which should effect amendments to the Constitution, probably the Portfolio Committee on Justice for the drafting of an amending bill,” he said.

He also confirmed that the resolution might be approved and incorporated approximately in November 2018.

Access to education for the Deaf community

In all levels of education (primary, high school and tertiary), effective communication between the educator, learner/student and peers is of utmost importance—as the success of the relationship depends on the way these different parties interact. The South African Government states that in most of the developing countries, most Deaf people do not have any access to education—only about 1-2% receive education in sign language.

For the Deaf community, this is one of the most challenging barriers they face in the education sector (amongst others). In South Africa, there are 44 schools for the Deaf—this excludes institutions of higher learning and training. Of the 26 public universities in the country, none of them caters completely to the Deaf. This then suggests that our education system is not as inclusive as it suggests, especially for the poor, black and Deaf/hearing impaired.

In addressing issues of the education sector and how Deaf and hearing-impaired individuals are supported, it is also important to note that in some cases, students who are already enrolled in educational institutions tend to overlook signs of hearing difficulties and it subsequently goes unnoticed by the relevant managerial bodies of the institution, thus resulting in an increase in the dropout rate in universities.

Private institutions such as the National Institution for the Deaf South Africa are there, offering a variety of courses taught in South African Sign Language but they are not very accessible for the poor majority of the Deaf community. Financial constraints might be a hindrance in the supporting and carrying out of education and skills for these young people. Because some hearing problems differ, as some people are born completely deaf, some may have experienced an accident that might have been the cause of the loss of hearing—therefore, it is important that regardless of the circumstances of the event, Deaf and hearing-impaired people be equipped to function comfortably at educational institutions.

To date, the University of South Africa is the only university or institution of higher learning that seems to be most suitable for the Deaf community in South Africa, as students have an option of not having to attend lectures. This, however, still means that the Deaf minority is excluded from the experience of the university life.

UNISA and the University of the Witwatersrand also provide sign language teaching short courses and deaf studies. These courses equip educators with skills and training to communicate with Deaf learners. All these efforts, although they might seem to be progressive in bettering the learning experience of the Deaf, limits the Deaf as to the kind of studies they should pursue.

According to Sign Language Education and Development (SLED), most Deaf people are unable to gain a tertiary qualification and if they are able to get a job, it is usually as an unskilled worker with a wage that can only supplement their Disability Grant.

Wits Vuvuzela reported: “In 2014, Wits became the first South African university to introduce the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) mechanism for Deaf students. The RPL mechanism allows Deaf students who have a matric to register as occasional students for SASL third year courses.”

Deaf students who register through RPL start their undergraduate studies at a third-year level, majoring in linguistics, poetry and literature and sociolinguistics in SASL. If a student’s average is 65% or more, they have the option of doing postgraduate studies in their own language.

Hospitality industry offers employment to the Deaf community

The Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group has been a leader in the hospitality industry through offering jobs to people with disabilities. A business venture was made between the hotel group and DeafSA. This comes after the DeafSA building was transformed into a magnificent hotel called the Park Inn by Radisson Newlands in Cape Town.

“We feel honoured to be able to make a difference in the lives of our Deaf and hard-of-hearing staff, giving them an equal opportunity in the working field,” said Clinton Thom, Cluster General Manager of Radisson Blu Le Vendome Hotel and Park Inn by Radisson Newlands.

This is good news for the Deaf community as they have been placed on the sidelines for many years in the work industry. The Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group believes strongly in the empowerment of Deaf and hard of hearing people. They are proud to have employed 30% of Deaf people as staff members in their various subsidiary hotels. The hotel is said to be the first in Africa to employ front and back of house staff who are deaf. Thom said: “They work mainly in the food and beverage departments, housekeeping and finance”.

The hearing people need to put their mind at ease when dealing with Deaf staff. Staff members would wear a badge with the name “I am deaf “ as a sign that the person is deaf so that guests are made fully aware of their presence in the hotel. The guests are then given a ‘crash course’ on how best to deal with them.

Gyrieyah Slemming, the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group’s HR Director for Africa & Indian Ocean says, “We are thrilled to be able to broaden our compliment of deaf staff and currently have almost 41 deaf and hard-of-hearing staff members within our South African properties. The Radisson Blu Hotel and Residence in Cape Town employs 12 deaf and hard-of-hearing staff while the Park Inn Polokwane has two deaf staff members who have relocated from Cape Town. Continuing our momentum of diversity and inclusion within the group, we actively seeking to employ additional deaf staff in Africa’s first Radisson Red hotel, scheduled to open in Cape Town in September this year.”

Park Inn by Radisson Newlands has won the 2015 Guardian Sustainable Business Award for Diversity & Inclusion in London. The hotel was commended for the role it played in uplifting Deaf people in the workplace. The hotel together with the group has been the driving force in the initiative programme.

Bruno Druchen, National Director of DeafSA, said he was thrilled with the end result of the initiative.

“Wherever we go, Deaf people either want employment or have given up hope of being employed; we use Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group as an example of a great partnership,” he said. “The experience has had such a positive spin-off. We want to continue spreading this wonderful story.”

DeafSA owns 51% shares from the Park Inn by Radisson Newlands hotel. The building once belonged to DeafSA and the merger yielded good results for both parties.

Unemployment and government intervention

Many South Africans know too well what unemployment means to the general populace and Deaf people are no exception, as they too know the struggle.

Druchen of DeafSA says, “With unemployment levels rising, jobs are few and far between. For the 1.6-million hard-of-hearing and Deaf individuals in South Africa, it is even more difficult to find employment. One of the main reasons we have seen tremendous success has been providing Deaf or hard-of-hearing staff with interaction tools during interviews.”

These are challenges prevalent in both the public and private sectors.

The government as the head entity of the country is obviously expected to have some form of input with regards to all issues affecting the citizens.

The Western Cape Department of Social Development Spokesperson, Sihle Ngobese said, “Special Programmes’ Disability Unit is responding as a funder and driving agent for disability services within DSD. There are other services rendered to Deaf persons by other departments in the WGC. The sub-programme, Services to Persons with Disabilities’ purpose is to design and implement integrated programmes and provides services that facilitate the promotion of the well-being and the socio-economic empowerment of persons with disabilities.”

Sihle also confirmed that “Clearly protected work is not formal employment, protective workshops are contracted to prepare high-functioning Deaf persons for formal employment, prepare them for job interviews and seek employment for them. The unit cost paid for a Deaf person and other persons with disabilities is R583 per person per month. DeafSA is contracted, among other things, to facilitate job placement programmes targeting 600 Deaf individuals per annum.”

On 11 September 2017, DeafSA released a statement stating that “South Africa will commemorate the International Week of the Deaf, themed ‘Full Inclusion with Sign Language’, during the month of September 2017 through a series of initiatives by DeafSA-Gauteng, in partnership with the City of Johannesburg (COJ), SABC Foundation, Royalty Communication & Hospitality and Wits University.”

This event is said to be in the form of a silent protest as well as a roundtable discussion by the MMC for Health and Social Development of The City of Johannesburg, Dr Mpho Phalatse on 28 (roundtable discussion) and 30 (silent walk) September 2017.

All proceeds will be going to DeafSA Gauteng, Sizwile School for the Deaf and Montjane Sports Development. 

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This edition

Issue 68