"As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs,” American author and sign language activist George William Veditz declared in 1913 in a film titled Preservation of the Sign Language.
He continued: “It is my hope that we will all love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.”
More than a century later, the deaf community and their supporters in South Africa are still campaigning to get South African sign language declared the country’s 12th official language.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel, though – the Pan-South African Language Board (PanSALB) is backing this move. PanSALB is an institution mandated by the Constitution to protect and promote South African languages, while ensuring that no one’s language rights are trampled on.
The campaign to have government accord South African sign language official status has been spearheaded by organisations including DeafSA, the SA National Deaf Association (Sanda) and Talk Sign.
According to the 2011 census, only 0.5% of South Africans, or 234 655, use sign language, although Sanda argues that the actual figure is higher – at 5.1% – because “the hearing and communication impairments are intertwined since the use of South African sign language is predominant for many deaf people and some hearing people who grow up with deaf family members”.
The country has 45 deaf schools with 18 600 pupils who use South African sign language as a language of learning and teaching.
PanSALB CEO Dr Rakwena Mpho Monareng, who has made several presentations to Parliament’s joint constitutional review committee on sign language – the latest was last month – said he advocated that the process to declare sign language official be moved faster to protect the dignity and human rights of sign language users.
“We do support the campaign to have sign language recognised as an official language because their plea is genuine and has got merit. The Constitution needs to be amended to include it. We are just waiting for the processes of Parliament to continue,” he said.
MPs have asked PanSALB to provide a “road map” that would be presented to the National Assembly, calling for the recognition of sign language and the amendment of the Constitution to make that possible.
PanSALB is in the middle of its 28 Days of Language Activism campaign and Monareng said that, although the board did not include sign language and others such as Khoisan languages in the campaign, it ensured that these languages were represented during public hearings to hold government departments accountable.
“We did not include them because they are not official yet and our campaign is about official languages. But in the series that we do, we look at multilingualism, so we also check if government departments are making an effort to include sign language,” he said.
“One of the things that I have been saying to departments is that it’s nonsensical to say they do sign language on request. It must be mandatory, whether there are people who use sign language or not. That shows that we acknowledge them.”
Sanda CEO Jabulane Blose said “the deaf community has placed its faith in us to vigorously campaign against the continued exclusion of South African sign language, which continues to deny them access to their language and culture, and which further excludes and diminishes the importance of deaf culture as a community”.
“In our submission to the review committee in May, we emphasised that South African sign language is not a communication option or a tool of inclusion for deaf people, but a primary and native language on its own as a part of the South African population.
“We also pointed out that the right to have access to, to learn and use South African sign language is not a privilege or a luxury, but a basic human right for all deaf people,” he said.
"Nobody understands our language"
Blose said full South African sign language recognition would ensure that deaf children gain early exposure to and fluency in the language, which will develop their inherent capability and entrench their rights to develop to their fullest potential.
He said that, to increase the number of South African sign language users, more accessible training programmes should be made available. South African sign language should be become part of school and higher education curriculums, Blose said.
Charmeela Surjoo, the director at Talk Sign, a KwaZulu-Natal-based organisation that also campaigns for the official recognition of South African sign language, said deaf communities felt “lonely and isolated” because “nobody understands their language”.
“When they go to clinics, for instance, they have to be with someone who will speak on their behalf, and this compromises their privacy,” Surjoo said.
Talk Sign does presentations in schools and companies to teach people about sign language.
“We promote the basics, the ‘hello, how are you?’” Surjoo said.
She added that it was generally difficult for government to render services to deaf people because of language barriers.
“There are huge challenges in government, including when it comes to employing deaf people. We are currently training health officials at 18 hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal so that they can communicate with patients.”
On March 10, organisations promoting sign language will observe Talk Sign Day, encouraging South Africans to learn the language.
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