22 September 2021 | Story Michelle Nöthling | Photo Supplied
Lerato Sheila Thamahane.

Lerato Thamahane may be able to speak and understand all nine of South Africa’s official African languages, but it is a tenth language she is devoting her life to: South African Sign Language (SASL).

With nearly ten years’ experience as a SASL interpreter in several settings – ranging from the medical and mental-health fields to that of conferences and Deafblind interpreting – Lerato is living her life’s purpose. “I regard myself as a member of the Deaf community and a servant at the same time.”

Lerato lives by the principle that the more perspectives she gains on the world, the better service as an interpreter she can provide. This is also part of the reason why Lerato decided to take on the role of student again to study BA Language Practice to provide her with an even broader perspective on the field. 

But why does Lerato feel so strongly about SASL? It is only through Sign Language, Lerato explains, that one can bridge the divide between the world of the hearing and that of the Deaf. “SASL is the only way for the minority Deaf group to receive and transfer information,” Lerato emphasises. “Deaf people cannot communicate in any other way.” Now, consider for a moment the plight of a Deaf child in South Africa. To receive education in SASL, most Deaf children have to move far away from home at a very young age in order to attend a school for the Deaf. For many years, schools for the Deaf did not include other languages as subjects, which prevented Deaf school-leavers from entering higher education. Although this situation has largely changed, Deaf students are still fighting an uphill battle when entering higher education institutions where prejudice and ignorance still persist. This is where the work of the Centre for Universal Access and Disability Support (CUADS) and the Department of South African Sign Language (SASL) and Deaf Studies makes such a crucial difference.

“I firmly believe,” Lerato says, “that only Sign Language can open opportunities for all groups of the Deaf community – from Deaf children to adults, and from the uneducated to the most educated Deaf people.” It is for this reason, Lerato argues, that our constitution needs to recognise SASL in order to give Deaf people full and equal access to information, to education, and ultimately, to all the opportunities South Africa has to offer.

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