22 September 2021 | Story Michelle Nöthling | Photo Supplied
Emily Matabane.

“I love teaching hearing people Sign Language,” Emily immediately mentions when asked about herself, “so that they can communicate with Deaf people and work with them.” Part of her passion, though, was borne from personal hardship. Emily had a difficult experience when she entered the work environment in 2000, since she was the only Deaf person among an all-hearing staff. Can one even begin to imagine the frustration and isolation she must have experienced? It is no wonder, then, that her vision is for Deaf people to have equal access to information, and for the hearing and Deaf to be able to communicate with each other more freely. And the latter she is pursuing with all her energy.

“When I started working as a Teaching Assistant in the UFS Department of South African Sign Language (SASL) and Deaf Studies,” Emily recalls, “few students were interested in studying Sign Language, because they were not aware of Deaf people and Sign Language.” This has started to change, though, as Emily is noticing a drastic increase in the number of UFS students enrolling for SASL. “I am now familiar with a lot of hearing student who have done Sign Language at our university, and they are very friendly when I meet them. Also, because they are able to greet me in Sign Language!” It is important to note that the department teaches SASL modules to both Deaf and hearing students (and staff) who want to learn the language – which is now also available as an online option.

As a second-year student studying BEd, Emily has formed a close relationship with CUADS (Centre for Universal Access and Disability Support) at the UFS. “CUADS is doing a great job in assisting students with disabilities and catering for their needs. They assist students to have access to education on the same level as other students without disabilities.”

Sign Language is of vital importance to the Deaf community, since it is the language of accessibility for Deaf people. “We are proud and acknowledge Sign Language as a medium of communication,” says Emily. “It allows us to express ourselves, and to teach and transfer our Deaf culture from one generation to the other.”

Ultimately, Emily is hopeful that Sign Language will become embraced, celebrated, and recognised as equal to the other official languages in South Africa.

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