Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency(ANA) – Being deaf did not get in the way of Thabile Bangani, who aspired to help children from the deaf community in South Africa.
By Kelebogile Olivier
The World Federation of the Deaf declared September to be Deaf Awareness Month in the 1950s. The Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA) and the South African National Deaf Association (SANDA) both promote awareness of the rights of deaf persons in South Africa.
During Deaf Awareness Week, deaf people are highlighted for their accomplishments and challenges (Deaf Awareness 2022) There growing is awareness about hearing loss, deafness, Deaf culture, and sign language.
By understanding the culture of the deaf community, hearing people can better understand deafness. This year’s theme is Building Inclusive Communities for all Through the Promotion of Deafness, Sign Language, and Deaf culture. This piece is a personal reflection of my experiences as a parent of a child who has hearing loss.
Access South African Sign Language as a medium of education
The education of deaf and hard-of-hearing learners is influenced by several factors both negatively and positively. The lack of deaf role models for deaf learners, the lack of recognition of South African Sign Language (SASL) as a Language of Learning and Teaching (LOLT), and the lack of fluency in SASL among teachers are some of these factors (Magongwa, 2010).
The education system is considering bi-modal communication. However, the challenge is finding schools where sign language is taught. A school such as Carel du Toit special school in Bloemfontein has a vision to teach spoken language and support children with hearing impairments. Therefore, it does not offer sign language as a language of education.
Baritimea School for blind and hearing-loss children is an alternative school that teaches sign language, and it is situated outside Bloemfontein. One thing about this school is that the kids learn sign language and are confident in their communication. It has an excellent teaching and learning vision which it has managed to actively reach.
The use of sign language in South Africa has advanced greatly. South African Sign Language (SASL) is set to become the 12th official language of the country after government regulations were passed recently. SASL will now be recognised by the Department of Basic Education as a home language and part of the national school curriculum in grades R to12 under the gazetted amendment.
This means that deaf learners will now be able to select SASL as a home language in schools. The department has also made amendments on the passing criteria for learners who select SASL as a home language in schools.
As SASL is the first language for most members of the deaf community, these positive changes will significantly impact learners’ ability to excel in school. “This regulation is called the Amendment Regulations pertaining to the National Curriculum Statement Grades R-12, 2022 and will come into effect on the date of publication in the Government Gazette.” A growing number of South Africans are fluent in the language, and this will ultimately lead to a more inclusive language and a greater appreciation of deaf culture.
Firsthand experience: parenting a child with hearing impairment
I found out about my son’s hearing impairment in the middle of 2018, based on pure maternal instinct. I took the decision to have him assessed by a speech therapist believing he had a simple speech problem. In that initial assessment, it was confirmed that the problem was not speech but that he had severe hearing loss. So began the journey to what felt like a million tests and hospital visits. That year alone my son was under anaesthesia more than four times.
Initially, he was fitted with hearing aids, which medical aid did not cover. Other costs included an unbudgeted R30,000 the audiologist charged for the devices. He had grommets fitted by an ENT, his hearing was tested while under anaesthesia, and his hearing was tested various times until hearing aids were confirmed not to be the best option for him.
Due to the severity of his hearing loss, towards the end of 2018, a decision was made to fit him with cochlear implants. With all this technology, a weekly speech therapy appointment, constant mapping, and regular audiograms, we were well on the way to a speaking child. Unfortunately, despite implants, the speech progress was delayed.
Personal interaction with the deaf community
My first experience of deaf communities and the challenges they face daily in simply trying to communicate and navigate a world that is designed not for them began in my undergraduate year module, introduction to sign language. Although some communities, organisations, and institutions of higher education have tried to move toward inclusivity, one does not need to look too deep to notice that the world is not designed for people with any type of impairment, especially in developing nations.
My experience of the deaf community felt like a mere drop in the ocean when 10 years post my undergraduate learning, I could not engage in a conversation with a deaf person. My limited experience and knowledge of deafness and the community were emphasised when my son was diagnosed with severe hearing loss. I realised there is so much to learn and navigating deafness is sometimes a lonely space, until you find even just one person to help you into the deaf society.
We are now considering bi-modal communication. In addition to working on his speech and hearing, we plan to use sign language to support it, especially for educational purposes. Although progress has been made towards inclusivity, we still have a long way to go.
Positive school experience for deaf/hearing-impaired children
Deaf children should have the same experiences of schooling as every other child in the country. A clean school, a bright and safe playground, and access to sports facilities at the school. This alone would make a difference in how they experience the world as deaf and hearing-impaired children. Rather than the frustration they face daily, they need to have hope that this world will improve. Their safe spaces should at least be exactly that, safe!
Olivier is a Lecturer in the Department of Criminology, and Secretary of the University of the Free State Women’s Forum.