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‘ 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.

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.

TALK TO US Should sign lan­guage be­come the 12th of­fi­cial lan­guage?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word SIGN and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name, home lan­guage and home town. SMSes cost R1.50

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