Recognition of South African Sign Language as Official Language: briefing by Deaf Federation of South Africa

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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


16 February 2007

Acting Chairperson:
Dr E Schoeman (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Deaf Federation of South Africa Memorandum on recognition of South African sign language as a twelfth official language
DeafSA Powerpoint presentation

The Deaf Federation of South Africa stated that it was approaching the Committee as a suggested first step in its quest to have South African Sign Language recognised as the twelfth official language of South Africa. DeafSA represented around one million deaf and hard of hearing people in South Africa, for whom sign language was a first language. They were hindered from access because, although deaf schools were now finally teaching sign language, rather than trying to teach speech, and although the Schools Act had granted recognition for education purposes to sign language, it was still not officially recognised, which meant that other departments, institutions, media and facilities did not support such language. DeafSA tabled other countries where official recognition was given and sought

Members raised questions on what sign language entailed, whether there were dialects, whether the language was universal to all deaf South Africans, and the numbers of profoundly deaf people for whom there were no options other than sign language as a means of communication  Several members were concerned about the practical implications of the proposals, particularly for schooling, media and the courts. Questions also addressed access to translators and schools.

The Committee resolved to discuss the matter again in two weeks time. DeafSA was asked to provide some further details.

The Committee would be meeting with a delegation from the German Parliament on 13 March to discuss the functioning of the Committee and constitutional changes made since 1996. A meeting on the submission proposing an increased Free State legislature would be convened once feedback had been obtained from the Western Cape legislature. 

The Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA): Briefing
Mr Bruno Druchen, National Director: DeafSA, noted the memorandum he had already distributed to the Committee. DeafSA had been experiencing problems for some years and Constitutional Court judges had given some advice to it on the processes that should be followed. This meeting was the first step in the process.

DeafSA was a national body with nine provincial offices. There were about 1 million deaf and  hard of hearing people in South Africa. They found themselves struggling with inaccessibility problems, through lack of official recognition of South African Sign Language (SASL). DeafSA had already liaised with the Pan South African Language Board (PANSALB) and had developed a five year business plan which would lead DeafSA to making SASL efficient. Many deaf people in the past were not allowed to use SASL sign language so had been forced to speak instead of being allowed to sign. Deaf Schools had a policy in the past of not using a universal sign language, but rather focusing on orals and teaching people how to speak. DeafSA opposed this and had been lobbying with the Department of Arts and Culture to see how best to promote the development of the SASL. For thirteen years DeafSA had been developing and were now lobbying that SASL became the twelfth official language.

Mr Druchen noted that several other countries had already gone this route. Uganda has accepted sign language as an official language. Finland and Australia had done so too.  The South African Schools Act indicated that it would accept sign language in schools for educational purposes. DeafSA was aiming at total recognition. This was a major leap forward and DeafSA sought the assistance and guidance of the Committee how it could be achieved. 

Mr Druchen pointed out that the SASL was currently being used. Five years had lapsed since the business plan was first formulated. The issue with PANSALB had always been a funding one. DeafSA had also worked with the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and had assisted it to develop standards on SASL.  It had also assisted the Department of Education on formulating a management plan  in the schools. Although some schools were already participating there was not total buy-in since there was no official recognition of the language.

The Chairperson noted that he would not personally have any problem with recognition of the SASL. However, if SASL were to become an official language, what would be the practical implications of a deaf learner demanding the right to be taught in his mother tongue at a mainstream school. He pointed out that there were deaf people in every province and region. Such requests could have huge cost and practicality implications.

Ms S Camerer (DA) noted that five countries had given constitutional recognition to sign language and others did so in terms of their law. She asked where South Africa stood at present on recognition.

Mr Druchen replied that some international countries had recognised sign language as an official language. There were others who recognised it for the purposes of education including access to communications. In South African the SA Schools Act made provision for teaching and responding on educational issues in SASL but no other law demanded or permitted official recognition. 

Ms Camerer understood that deaf children had been and perhaps still were being taught to speak, but that it would be preferable for them to communicate in sign language. She asked why this was so, and what were the main impediments to learning.

Mr Druchen said that Deaf Schools, the deaf community and the Department of Education had already recognised SA sign language, because it was in the Schools Act. Deaf schools were now using SASL to communicate in the deaf schools. Some deaf people went through mainstream institutions with sign language. Many materials had been developed for the language. There were already documents to implement and DeafSA would work closely with schools and institutions to see how to distribute them to create more awareness.

Mr Druchen stressed that other countries had already given full official recognition to sign language as to the spoken languages. Some countries' laws had been geared to  a specific purpose, such as education. However, DeafSA was proposing that SASL become the twelfth official language.

DeafSA had received the Further Education and Training certification from Department of Education, but still there was only official recognition of eleven languages. This was one stumbling block. The telephone interpreting unit of South Africa recognised eleven official languages and SASL's non accessibility meant that deaf people could not access this system. SABC covered all eleven official languages but it did not give access to sign languages, as it was not obliged to do this under the constitution. DeafSA was calling for recognition to improve access. Without official status being accorded to it, no official programmes would be implemented and budgeted for. 

Ms Camerer asked how many of the one million deaf and hard of hearing were profoundly deaf and were therefore completely reliant on sign language, and how many were impaired but could speak.

Mr F Beukman (ANC) asked if the number was based on the previous census, or on some other statistics.

Mr Druchen replied that one million people were included as deaf or hard of hearing. Of those deaf and hard of hearing one million, 500 000 used SASL, so that would be the figure of people reliant on sign language. A person who became deaf at a later stage of his life could perhaps be a member of DeafSA although he had not yet learned to sign. The statistics used by DeafSA dated back to 1994, but were not entirely accurate. Statistics South Africa had grouped a number of disabilities together, and how exactly Statistics SA had done their research was not known. For instance, there was no certainty on how the disability had been assessed, and some members of staff were not disability sensitive. DeafSA would have to go a different route to establish exact numbers. In 2004 StatsSA had come up with a figure of " 10 000 deaf and dumb people “ but there was again no certainty what this meant, and whether those people who could not speak were prevented from doing so through their deafness or through some other disability. However, previous research that DeafSA had done, together with a World Health Organisation assessment, indicated that the figure of one million was more accurate.

In regard to Ms Camerer's question how many deaf people were totally reliant on the language, Mr Druchen indicated that this was not quite the point. Deaf people regarded SASL as their first language, and the one in which they were most comfortable to communicate without missing or misunderstanding what was being said.

Mr A Gaum (ANC) noted that in the Constitution, the official languages were given one status and some others were given a special status. He asked if sign language was included in the special status group. Would DeafSA be satisfied only with an official language status or would it be prepared to accept some other kind of constitutional recognition.

Mr Druchen replied that the Constitution recognised Khoi and San languages and South African sign language as special groups, indicating only that they needed to be developed in PANSALB. The Schools Act recognised the language only for educational purposes. DeafSA believed that for government departments to respect and accept it, SASL must become an official language.

Mr Gaum requested details on whether official language recognition would mean, for instance, that the State would be compelled to appoint interpreters for deaf people.

Ms Frances Prinsloo, Director Development, DeafSA said that the official language status would really help deaf people to be recognised by all the sectors to accommodate them and to enable them to have full access. She noted with dismay that there was no proper provision for interpreters in Court, nor in workplaces.

Ms Njobe asked if interpreters were available and ready to be used if SASL were to become a twelfth official language. She noted that each of the schools would in theory need to be covered and enquired if the capacity was present.

Ms Prinsloo replied that in South Africa there were 50 sign language interpreters. Only three of them were subsidised. There was a huge need to increase this number, but the lack of official status meant that there was no compelling reason why it should be increased. SABC had tried to increase the numbers of interpreters on television but management had decided that since the SASL was not official, it would not budget for it. DeafSA was trying desperately to develop to the point where SASL was official to overcome these hindrances.

Ms Prinsloo added that ideally an interpreter was needed for every deaf or hard of hearing person. The real number was difficult to assess at present because it was only in certain spheres particularly in dealings with institutions, that a person would be totally dependent on interpretation, and DeafSA would be likely to think about an incremental situation. She indicated that it was not only in interpretation that there was a problem. In the Northern Cape there were no places to assess children and these children had ended up being illiterate or schooled only to a low level as they were unable to cope with mainstream schools. That was a further illustration of the problems in getting accurate statistics.

Mr Druchen indicated that different schools had the option of offering other languages, selected from the list of official languages. If a deaf person were to attend a mainstream school, DeafSA would like to see interpreters. Once the language was recognised, DeafSA could start to provide education and access, and was in fact already doing so. In so far as the financial implications were concerned, these were limited by the number of deaf people. He pointed out that Venda was an official language, with only 800 000 people using it. SASL, with one million users, was in no worse position.

Ms M Njobe(ANC) enquired whether DeafSA was well known in the rural areas, and whether people were aware of the benefits and the representative quality of DeafSA. She asked the extent of its activities in the rural areas.

Ms R Ndzanga (ANC) noted that there were deaf children countrywide. If there was any way to accommodate DeafSA by way of language recognition, it should be pursued strongly. The Constitution was not cast in stone, and could be amended wherever the need arose. She enquired how the deaf population was spread, and if sufficient schools existed at present. She urged that there should not be segregation of racial groups, and asked how DeafSA would work with black people.  She asked if  DeafSA did already work with African deaf people.

Mr Druchen confirmed that DeafSA had a strong focus on the rural areas, and had offices in all nine provinces. Each of those offices also made a point of going into the rural areas. Focus in the rural areas was at this stage mainly in terms of awareness, and working with deaf people who had social problems or who needed to be assisted to access other structures such as clinics. DeafSA did receive a subsidy from the Department of Social Development (DSD), with whom it had a good relationship, and was fully aware of the need to concentrate on rural areas.

Ms Frances Prinsloo, Director Development, DeafSA added  that DeafSA was developing in all provinces and was proud to note that the federation consisted of mainly black people from the disadvantaged communities who had been democratically elected at their provincial level and were now at national level.  DeafSA was partnered with 104 organisations to provide services, including schools, deaf clubs, and social services organisations.

Mr Druchen said that 80% of the National Executive committee was formed of black deaf people. About 99% of its staff were black. Deaf people lobbied for one language issue, that was completely divorced of any racial issue. Deaf people from all races faced exactly the same barrier, and were able to communicate in one language. Therefore that language should become official.

Mr P Smith (IFP) noted that there were more users of sign languages than of some of the other official languages. He asked, in the event that SASL were to be approved as a twelfth language, whether this would really improve the problems of accessibility and acceptance.  From a practical point of view, although there were eleven official languages, each province would actually only really use two or three as their day to day means of communication. He asked if it was likely that government would select SASL as one of those two or three, and what were the practicalities of doing so.

Mr A Watson (DA) was aware of his own shortcomings in understanding sign language, and asked if it was a language, or a method of communication. He asked how SASL interacted with the eleven other languages.

Mr C Burgess (ANC) asked how many dialects there were in sign language.

Mr Druchen replied that SASL was not the same as a spoken language like English or Afrikaans. It was a separate visual language. Coloured people in Cape Town would not use "Afrikaans sign language", and the local Eastern Cape population did not use "Xhosa sign language". The Committee should discount that idea completely. Sign language was purely visual. A person could not, simultaneously, use English and Afrikaans. Sign language had its own structure, grammar, tenses, and idioms. Mr Druchen demonstrated some words, and stressed that a deaf person would understand a certain gesture as relating to a defined object or situation. The interpreter would interpret the signs into any other language, but SASL was one universal language.  It was Mr Druchen's first language, although he could speak and read others. Deaf people would all regard SASL as their first language, so a family anywhere in South Africa signing to its deaf member would be signing in the same way. He noted that sign language was a very abridged and concise form of language and stressed that it was visual, and not reliant on whole sentence structures.

Mr Druchen noted that although he had been to a deaf school, the teachers could not sign. They had only used speech. Despite being taught at a deaf school, Mr Druchen would not feel confident in meetings that he had understood every word and would not be able to be involved in the discussions. A deaf child, sitting in class and having to focus all the time on the lips without any signing would not get the same quality education because there was a language barrier. Deaf children depended on signs to have access. This would only be given if the language were fully recognised.

In regard to dialects, Mr Druchen noted that apartheid had had its effects on sign language. One sign language was developed for white people, and different gestures applied in the Western Cape, or Gauteng. Under the Apartheid system it might have been necessary to have nine interpreters, but after 1994 serious attempts were made to develop one language. Dialect differences still did exist, but were really not a problem. Deaf people were well used to communication and were able to adapt. SASL was now a universal South African language.  

Ms Camerer asked for further elaboration on what recognition would really mean. She asked how many interpreters there were, for example, for Tsonga or Venda in the country, and how many for SASL. She asked how many more interpreters would be needed.

Mr Gaum noted that if the language were accorded official status, every television programme should have an interpreter on the screen. Every school would require an interpreter. In all dealings with the State all deaf people would need interpreters. He asked to what extent the State must provide interpreters, as was the case in Parliament. This would surely be a major practical consequence.

Mr Smith believed that every person would automatically have a right to have an interpreter present in Court, but he was not sure how interpreters would apply at schools, and whether sign language would essentially only be used in schools for the deaf. He asked if mainstream schools would be required to provide interpreters at every subject and level. He enquired if there might be a middle road to respond to the issues of different state services where interpretation would be required.

Ms Njobe added that some other documents would be needed for the Committee to analyse what the implications would be if sign language were approved as an official language, extending across all areas. She asked if there was any indication, in particular, as to what the rationale was when SASL was listed as a separate category but not as an official language. Was DeafSA aware of the reasons?

Mr Smith noted that there had been previous interaction with other bodies, such as PANSALB, and asked what previous objections were raised, apart from asserting that there was no automatic right of recognition in the Constitution.

Mr Druchen indicated that DeafSA had been working with the Department of Arts and Culture, who, in terms of the Constitution, had a mandate to develop language. PANSALB did not really have such a mandate.   The Department of Justice was a major problem, and not one single Court had provision for SASL interpreters. Many deaf people had been convicted as they were unable to respond to the accusations. This was a fundamental right of access that did not exist. 

Mr Smith asked for further details about any material being produced.

Mr Druchen replied that the materials had already been developed. An analysis of needs had been performed, and the Department of Arts and Culture had been assisted with drawing a framework on implementation plans each year and handling and managing plans. Training materials consisted of videos and written material. Most was visual because SASL was visual. It would explain concepts, such as the alphabet, and would also include stories in sign language.

Ms Ndzanga asked how many deaf professionals, such as advocates, doctors and specialists there were presently. She enquired if deaf people would have to write the same examinations, attend the same universities and acquire the same degrees.

Ms Prinsloo indicated that this question highlighted the exact problem. In the apartheid years, deaf children went to deaf schools, but only informally learned sign language. It was not official, and there were no classes in SASL. Teachers would teach orally, and this had resulted in the different dialects. Now there was development of one language. There were certainly other ways to try to arrange the education to make it more cost effective, so that children wanting to go to mainstream school could access assistance by the State. At the moment the parent would pay a private interpreter and this was an additional cost. This type of question was one of the matters that would need to be negotiated.

Mr Smith noted that if he was Venda speaking but insisted on attending a school in Cape Town, the school would not provide an interpreter.

On the issue of schools, Mr Druchen said that DeafSA covered about 42 deaf schools in South Africa. Many parents wanted to send their children to schools closer to home, but these schools were not able to provide services. The parents would ask DeafSA how it could give support, but the truth was that it could not without the support from the Department of Education. DeafSA, through other organisations, had been able to identify the need and help with training for hard of hearing already. 

The Chairperson felt that before the Committee could deliberate fully it would be necessary to have some further material, and he presumed that some further information or statistics had come out of the earlier meetings with the Departments of Education and Arts and Culture. He enquired if there was a suggestion for a phasing-in process, or any other relevant material. Mr Gaum had suggested that DeafSA might be able to provide a legal opinion, but the Chairperson felt this was not DeafSA's obligation and would be attended to, if necessary, by the Committee, unless a legal opinion was already available.

The Chairperson thanked DeafSA for the insight into the problems of the hearing impaired community and assured Mr Druchen that the Committee had empathy with DeafSA's situation and was keen to try to balance the practical implications with the request. Although the Committee could recommend constitutional change it did not have the mandate to draft constitutional legislation, which was the responsibility of  the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. He noted that the Committee would deliberate this issue again in two weeks' time.

Committee Programme
The Chairperson announced a request from the German embassy that this Committee hold a meeting with the German Parliamentary delegation that would be visiting in the week of 12 March to discuss the functioning of the Committee, and the constitutional changes made since 1996. The researcher would draw up the necessary search on the constitutional changes.

Last year's submission regarding the size of the Free State legislature was still being followed up. A meeting on the submission for a proposed increase of the Free State legislature would be convened once feedback had been obtained from the Western Cape legislature.

The meeting adjourned.


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