Should sign language be an official language in SA?

Pupils at a deaf school in Cape Town
Pupils at a deaf school in Cape Town
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As South Africans joins other nations of the world in observing International Week of the Deaf (22-28 September), the Department of Social Development supports all efforts to elevate the debate to make South African Sign Language an official language in South Africa.

Deaf persons continue to experience high levels of marginalisation and exclusion due to a general lack of understanding of deaf culture, lack of South African Sign Language proficiency, and the availability of and expense associated with professional sign language interpreter services. This limits the social participation and integration of deaf persons. One way of addressing this marginalisation is having South African Sign Language recognised as an official language in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, and the country needs to seriously to discuss this matter if we’re going to walk the talk in advancing disability rights.

Read: Deaf people read language much faster

Strengthening human diversity

The theme for the 2014 International Week of the Deaf is "Strengthening human diversity", which calls for society to be sensitised so that it can better enhance its capacity to take into account diversity and make needed changes. Part of this, according to World Federation of the Deaf, is obtaining recognition of sign languages in all legislation and policies and the right to receive education in sign language.

The announcement by the Minister for Basic Education that South African Sign Language will be introduced in the curriculum of schools in 2015 is therefore an important step in the quest for equality for deaf South Africans.

The Department of Social Development encourages South Africans to learn South African Sign Language, to include deaf persons in their social circles at home, work and places of worship, and to take action, speak out against any discrimination, abuse or other forms of human rights violations perpetrated against Deaf persons.

The Department also acknowledges that not all deaf and hard of hearing South Africans speak sign language, as they rely on sub-texting and lip-readers to access information on an equal basis as their hearing peers. The broadcasting media in this regard plays a particularly important role, and regulating bodies such as ICASA should strengthen legislation and their oversight in ensuring that sub-texting on television programmes, DVDs etcetera is available.

Read: Deaf pupil requests to complete exams in sign language

SA to improve lives of those with disabilities

In his June 17 State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma said government will continue to advance and improve the lives of people with disabilities over the next five years.

"We will work with the Disability sector to identify key areas in which we should fulfil South Africa’s role as signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol. Another key intervention this term will be to finalise the National Disability Rights Policy which includes the National Disability Rights Framework. The Policy and the Framework will guide Government action to promote a more inclusive society and to promote the involvement of people with disabilities in decision-making processes," said President Zuma.

The Department of Social Development has committed to working with Parliament, national, provincial and local government institutions, as well as Chapter 9 institutions and organisations representing Deaf and hard-of-hearing persons, for the full implementation of Articles 9 and 21 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as it pertains giving equal access to communication and information to Deaf and hard-of-hearing persons through the recognition of sign language and availability of appropriate technology.

Building a united and cohesive South African society is the responsibility of every South African. Together we move South Africa forward through empowered and inclusive communities that uphold the rights of persons with disabilities to equality, dignity and self-reliance.

Read more:
7 benefits of sign language
New device gives deaf people the power of speech
New clue to sign language

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