The origin of South African Sign Language (SASL)
Deaf people cannot perceive sound and that makes them different? Many would assume that deaf individuals take pity on themselves and hide from the rest of the world. Many would think that there is no hope and no future for these individuals. On the contrary, it is quite the opposite. In recent years more and more light has been shining on deaf people and their needs in South Africa. As a result of Mr Thamsanqa Jantjie ‘interpreting’ at the events of late former president Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2013. With the turning of events the world are now acquainted with Sign language and the needs of deaf people are not being taken nonchalantly any longer.
According to Lucas (2001: 29) most relatively educated and skilful deaf signers came from Germany, Hungary and European countries and as a result of their influence spread to countries that include South Africa. A more recent source also maintains that Irish Sign Language (ISL) has had a considerable amount of impact on SASL amongst other countries (Pfau et al, 2012: 935).
Traditionally, labelling a person whom is Deaf, hard of hearing or hearing impaired was considered inferior to the general hearing society. Throughout history, the hearing society represented a mind-set that devalues deaf individuals (Leigh et al., 2012: 3) and still today the majority of South Africans perceive the deaf as inferior and disabled. Leigh et al. (2012: 4) has found that society still carries many negative connotations regarding the cultural associations of the deaf.
Furthermore, let us consider some legislative policies that South Africa has to say about the status of SASL in our country. According to Schoeman (2007), SASL has become recognized as well as protected in numerous governmental and legislative polices. Hence, SASL is also acknowledged as an equal language to the eleven official languages in South Africa. White Paper 6 (Anon., 2001) stipulates that SASL is to be used as the method of instruction in South Africa’s schools for the deaf.
According to De Beco (2014: 265 (Vol 32(3)) the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, implemented in 2008, Article 24 discusses the essence of Sign Language for deaf learners. In addition, Article 24 obligates participating governments to navigate the learning of its nation’s Sign Language and to encourage individuals to identify themselves with deaf communities of their choice.
Lucas (2001: 151) further suggests that participating governments must ensure employment for educators, especially deaf educators, who are qualified in Sign Language and eventually train all stakeholders to be competent in SASL. Moreover, Schoeman (2007) mentions that South Africa has approved the previous mentioned Convention and it appears that South African citizens are willing to work together to offer the opportunity for deaf children to grow and develop by means of Sign Language.
On the contrary, due to the shortage of trained educators and sufficient materials; the Convention is meaningless unless South Africa can recognize the importance of proper training in Sign Language, the development of materials and finally implement strategies for a better future (Schoeman, 2007).
Now, let us consider education for the deaf in SA. For decades there has been controversy regarding the method of instruction to be used in South African Deaf schools. Traditionally, the majority of schools used oralism to teach deaf learners. In an article of Dr W. Nah Dixon he agrees that still today many South African schools encourage learners to use oralism (Magubane, 2014).
Benedict (2003) claims that the deaf believes a bilingual bi-culture environment would be ideal for teaching deaf leaners in order for them to be bilingual in Sign Language and written English. Akach (2010) also agrees that approaches such as bilingual or multilingual teaching methods will resolve many barriers for the deaf. Thus, for deaf children to have multiple opportunities to communicate will only be beneficial to their future.
During the Apartheid era of South Africa discrimination, segregation and injustice was part of many peoples’ lives and still today influences many deaf individuals. Article 30 of the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (Visual life, 2015) stipulates that people with disabilities shall be allowed, on an equal basis to select and support a specific culture and linguistic identity.
Article 30, paragraph 4 thus specifies that the Deaf culture is included and entitled to associate with their preferred culture and use SASL. Worldwide, basic human rights of deaf people have been blatantly violated in the past. Deaf people have been denied many rights such as the right to use Sign language, vote, marry and raise a family (Halpern, 1995- 1996) and South Africa is no exception.
According to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) (Haualand & Allen, 2009) 93 countries, including South Africa ha recognized the importance of Sign language, deaf education, accessibility and qualification of Sign language interpreters. According to Reagan (2007: 166–167) cited by Akach (2010) SASL is in the minority when it comes to South Africa’s diversity although SA has a very rich diversity with many languages and cultural groups (Pereira, 2010).
As SASL has been accepted as part of our education systems for teaching and learning purposes, there has been a greater support and focus on Deafness in our country. This in turn has led to Deaf culture in South Africa becoming more popular. Akach (2010) maintains that during the end of the 20th century developments within our own country were not that different from other African countries but due the certain elements of Apartheid has taken SA onto another route.
As a result has demonstrated the unequal language policy, particularly with regards to education in SA. Supporting this view of Akach, De Kadt (2006: 42) points out that the unequal status of minority languages including SASL causes major issues because learners are regularly assessed in another language which they usually have low proficiency in.
Finally, the one element that differs greatly from other countries such as America, Australia and Great Britain is the fact that there is no uniform Sign language in SA, where as in the above mentioned countries each consist of a single Sign language (Simmons, 1994: 78).
During the past 100 years many Sign language systems have been established due to the many ethnic group in SA. SA is a rich in cultural diversity ranging from English and Afrikaans speakers to twelve different tribes of black Africans whom use Zulu, Sotho, Tswana etc.
Hence, Simmons (1994: 78) points out as a result the mother-tong language whatever it may be, the demographic and geographical location of people has greatly influenced the formation of SASL and Deaf Culture has not developed as strongly as it has in other countries.