Deaf Awareness: call for a 12th language

Loretta Sha believes people need to take more care with the way they treat deaf people. The 66-year-old who lives in the Kingswood area started losing her hearing three years ago.

“I can only talk to one person at a time,” she said. “I can’t take it when a lot of people talk at once; it sounds like bees in my ear. “(People) must be more considerate towards us.”

From Thursday 29 August to 4 September South Africa celebrates National Deaf Awareness Week. Communities around the country will come together in solidarity with people with hearing disabilities. The purpose of the week is to raise awareness around issues connected to hearing loss, and educating the public on challenges that deaf people face.

One problem facing people with hearing disabilities is the fact that they are not properly censused and catered for, says a senior sub-editor at the Daily Dispatch, Tim Stones. He is also a former researcher at the National Institute for the Deaf (NID).

According to the 2011 census on Sign Language first-language users, 600 000 South Africans are profoundly deaf and one million are extremely hard of hearing. Stones, who battles with hearing loss, disputes those figures. He points out that they don't take into consideration people who are severely, moderately or mildly hard-of-hearing.

The Deaf Federation of South Africa defines being deaf as “all persons with a substantial hearing loss who may consider themselves deaf. “In particular it refers to those persons who use South African sign language as a means of communication, including hard of hearing, deaf-blind and deafened persons who align and identify themselves with deaf culture and with South African sign language.”

There are currently no accurate figures of people who use sign language as their first language, Stones says. Estimates vary between 700 000 and two million people in South Africa. This high number inspired the NID to call for sign language to be recognised as an official language in South Africa earlier this year.

According to the NID, sign language is the fifth-most used language in the  country more than those  who speak SiSwati,  IsiNdebele and TshiVhendathan siSwati, isiNdebele and tshiVhenda. But Deputy Minister of the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, says changing the status of sign language would be a very involved process.

It would require parliamentary inputs and constitutional amendments and the process could take up to three years to institute. But Stones asserts that sign language is not an option for the deaf – it is a fundamental human right. A recent survey however shows that only 14% of teachers of deaf pupils can speak in signs.

“The effect of this for many is a sense of social isolation. There is frustration at not being understood,” said Stones.

Another challenge is lack of clear records in the number of deaf university graduates, especially those with post-graduate qualifications. Only a handful of universities in South Africa provide support services for deaf students, Stones said, and he praised Wits for being one of the leaders.

He attributes factors such as these to the very high unemployment rate among the deaf.

Something else many people may be unaware of is South Africa's strong deaf cricket team, some of whose players have international experience. The team entered into four-match ODI and two-match T20i series on Wednesday 28 August against England's deaf side at Pretoria's Sinovich Park.

This is the first international deaf Cricket tournament South Africa has ever hosted.

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Deaf Awareness: call for a 12th language