15 September 2023 | Story Kelebogile Boleu | Photo Supplied
Kelebogile Boleu
Kelebogile Boleu, Lecturer in the Department of Criminology and Secretary of Women’s Forum, University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Kelebogile Boleu, Lecturer in the Department of Criminology and Secretary of Women’s Forum, University of the Free State. 

A significant milestone occurred on 19 June 2023 when President Cyril Ramaphosa signed South African Sign Language (SASL) as the 12th official language of the Republic of South Africa into law. This was a momentous victory for the four million deaf and hard-of-hearing South Africans whose language rights have been ignored, oppressed and marginalised. This important milestone signifies South Africa's commitment to supporting the aspirations of deaf individuals in preserving their culture, heritage, and language. While there is still much work to be done, my primary concern lies with deaf education and accessibility, as these present challenges in raising a deaf child. September has been celebrated as Deaf Awareness Month in South Africa, with the purpose of Deaf Awareness Week being to draw attention to deaf people, their accomplishments, and their issues.  In addition to celebrating the milestone I believe the focus of deaf awareness activities should be on mapping a way forward for inclusivity in the health sector, the public service sector, policing and the private sector to ensure SASL is accessible. However, this article aims to emphasise hope, support, and the eagerness to learn that permeate the South African landscape. 


SASL and Deaf Culture

Languages and their various forms serve both as a unifying and differentiating force in human society. Language goes beyond being a mere medium of communication; it is an integral part of culture. It enables people to connect, form relationships, and foster a sense of community. It is through language that individuals and communities establish their identity, and the essence of their culture is deeply intertwined with the language they speak, bringing forth meaning that is often difficult to translate. This significance holds true for South African Sign Language (SASL), which holds a special place within the South African Deaf community.

The journey towards SASL becoming the 12th official language exemplifies the eagerness of many South Africans to learn this language and connect with the deaf community. I initially studied sign language as a module during my undergraduate studies, but it remained dormant until I had to relearn it to communicate with my son, who is deaf. Like any language, acquiring SASL as an adult has posed challenges, and keeping up with my son's proficiency continues to be an ongoing struggle.

UFS SASL Short Learning Programme

Recently, the SASL department at the University of the Free State introduced a short learning course, which garnered significant interest from both the university staff and the wider community. As we interacted with each other and the SASL department, it became apparent that our expectations of the course's educational value were surpassed. The course not only expanded our knowledge of SASL but also enlightened us about the rich Deaf culture and dispelled misconceptions we held regarding the deaf community. I can see this course benefitting individuals who work in all sectors, be it medical, financial, policing and public sectors, enhancing accessibility of services for deaf people. 

As a parent, I found great encouragement in meeting children who were raised by deaf parents. Navigating the challenges of deafness without prior knowledge of the community and its culture has been a tumultuous journey for me. When we approach deafness from a diagnostic standpoint, as is often the case in mainstream society, our instinct is to seek remedies or "fix" the perceived problem. Depending on the severity of deafness, solutions such as hearing aids and cochlear implants may seem feasible. This was the path I embarked on with my son, as it was the information readily available to me. I followed the recommendations of specialists, striving to provide him with the best opportunities in life, as I understood them at the time. Although I carry a sense of guilt for these choices, I also take solace in knowing that we have access to these technologies, which I hope he will perceive as beneficial in the future.

For those who have completed the course, it may be challenging to maintain progress and expand their vocabulary if they do not actively seek out conversations with deaf individuals. It is important not to hesitate in approaching and engaging with the deaf community while keeping an open mind. I have observed that the deaf community is an integral and welcoming part of South African society, known for its warmth and friendliness. 

Thriving Beyond Expectations: Embracing Deaf Culture and Achieving Success

Transferring my son from a school that emphasises spoken language (dependence on cochlear implants and hearing aids) to one that uses sign language as a medium of instruction has proven to be the most beneficial decision we have made thus far. Witnessing his growth and confidence in SASL, along with significant academic improvement, has been truly remarkable. At his current school, he is given the freedom to embrace his true self without any pressure to conform or strive for an ill-defined "norm" that is often misunderstood as a pathway to success. Shifting from a diagnostic perspective that views deafness as a disability to embracing the Deaf Culture perspective has had a profound impact. At schools for the deaf and blind, deaf children can simply be children, communicating effortlessly in SASL and experiencing a childhood just like their hearing peers. With SASL now an official language, we can only hope that this experience will transfer into their communities, being able to access services in the public sector, in the health sector, in policing and in other even more private sectors where gaining access will not be hindered by their mode of communication.

Embracing a Promising Future: SASL as a Vehicle for Inclusion

For me, SASL represents a beacon of hope and acceptance. When my son received his diagnosis, my greatest desire was to be able to communicate effectively with him, to understand his needs and emotions. Now, we have reached a point where communication is no longer the biggest hurdle in nurturing our relationship. He is simply my son, and I am his mother. This realisation brings me immense joy, and I yearn to see more families like ours flourish, with our children thriving by our sides.

I fervently hope that soon, this sense of diversity will permeate our educational systems. This shift would not only strengthen families but also enable deaf children to remain within their homes instead of being sent away in search of accessible schooling. After all, more than 95% of deaf children are born into hearing families, and it is crucial to keep them within those families. Hopefully, SASL will become a widely recognised language throughout our communities, bridging the gap and promoting inclusivity.

  • For more information on the courses available from the SASL Departments please contact Carla Joubert.

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