Sign language matric exam hailed as major victory

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Sign language has been included as a subject for matric for the first time. (Lucas Nowicki, GroundUp)
Sign language has been included as a subject for matric for the first time. (Lucas Nowicki, GroundUp)

Sign language was included as a subject for the first time in the 2018 National Senior Certificate exams, in what the Dominican School for the Deaf described as a major victory for the deaf community, GroundUp has reported.

South African Sign Language (SASL) was recognised by the Department of Basic Education as an official home language in 2018.

According to Cindy Rutter, the principal at the Dominican School for the Deaf in Wynberg, four pupils in the Western Cape took the 2018 sign language exam.

"They had to do bridging courses in Grades 9, 10, 11. They had to learn what kids learn when they do English or Afrikaans throughout school. Sign language has its own grammar and structure, so from Grade 9 they had to catch up," said Rutter.

READ: 2 Western Cape schools to offer Sign Language as matric subject

For the final exam in sign language, pupils worked in closed-off booths where they watched questions in sign language before taking videos of themselves signing answers.

"They watch the question, sign the answer and then file it [on the laptop]," said Rutter.

She said a challenge implementing the new policy was access to resources. This was the first time students were studying SASL as a home language so there were no textbooks on sign language as a home language, or former students who had studied SASL in high school to draw on. Everything had to be developed from scratch.

Language as a tool for empowerment and inclusion

Rutter said the curriculum was limited but would develop. Among the resources to be developed were deaf poets and storytellers recording their stories for deaf pupils to study.

Rutter stressed the importance of language as a tool for empowerment and inclusion. She said the recognition of sign language as a home language for matric put "a minority group on the map".

"It is a great victory for us. It gives confidence to deaf people because their language is recognised," said Rutter.

Jabulane Blose, CEO of South African National Deaf Association (Sanda), which promotes and advances the rights of deaf people, labelled the new policy "a major milestone in the consolidation of the rights of deaf people to balanced and accessible education".

But Blose highlighted challenges with the implementation of SASL as a home language, including:

  • the need for more training and qualified educators;
  • the inclusion of deaf people in the development of the language and policies;
  • the need for SASL to have its own curriculum, instead of copying the English curriculum; and
  • there are more than four million deaf and hard-of-hearing (partially deaf) people in South Africa, according to Sanda.

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