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January 20, 2003

Activist Naomi Says Deaf People Will Win Struggle for Own Language

From:, Africa - 20 Jan 2003

East Cape News (Grahamstown)

January 20, 2003

Mike Loewe

There is a fascinating comparison being drawn between the black consciousness struggle and what South African Sign Language (SASL) activists are calling the "deaf consciousness movement".

In an interview, radical activist and international South African Sign Language interpreter Naomi Janse van Vuuren, 35, said the stakes were high in the struggle to get all 44 South African schools for the deaf to "be able" to teach in the medium of South African sign language.

The struggle for language is vividly remembered by all South Africans as the spark which set off the township school revolts began in mid-70s when the apartheid regime tried to force teachers and pupils to use Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. Many young activists were inspired by the political teachings of Eastern Cape-based black consciousness leader Steve Biko, among them the primacy of mother-tongue African languages in identity formation, self pride and confidence.

In a startling allegation, Naomi, who is a Rhodes University education graduate, says there is a strong resistance from some quarters in the schools to change the medium of instruction for deaf children away from what she terms "second language mediums" -- meaning any of the 11 official languages -- in favour of SA sign language.

If true, it seems tragic that the education system for the deaf produces children that "do not believe in themselves, think hearing people are somehow superior and see themselves as somehow lacking".

She says: "A lot of deaf people in South Africa are unemployed. Often bright deaf kids don't want to go to university because they think it is 'not for them'."

Because it is physically and structurally only possible to teach deaf people any language using sign language, she says too many young deaf adults enter the world "almost illiterate. They give up on progressing in their lives and end up doing manual labour."

"You have to use sign to explain the structural differences between sign and other languages. If teachers can't sign, their pupils children can't build up a vocabulary in the second language they are trying to learn."

Naomi was interviewed shortly after being married to former Eastern Cape United Democratic Front activist Dominique Souchon, 43. He is now deputy director for change management in the Office on the Status of Disabled Persons in President Mbeki's office in Pretoria. A former Cambridge High School, East London matriculant, and University of Port Elizabeth graduate, Souchon was also disabled in 1993. He uses a wheelchair and crutches.

The joyous couple were interviewed while travelling through the Eastern Cape staying with old struggle friends in Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown while their way home to Pretoria after their wedding in Fish Hoek, Cape Town.

Naomi, a daughter of a Gereformeerde Kerk dominee in a family originally of six (one Pretoria brother died in a burglary attack) teaches English through the medium of SA sign language at the Transoranje School for the Deaf in Pretoria. She interpreted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development last year and at a number of international conferences.

It was during her first job at the De La Bat School for the deaf in Worcester that she realised her attempts at teaching English were failing. Teaching in sign was forbidden at the time.

"I soon realised that I and the kids were working hard but nothing was happening."

Two years later, in 1994, while studying at Gallaudet University for the Deaf in Washington DC, she first learned about using sign language as the medium of instruction for bilingual education.

"I realised I had to learn to sign as soon as possible."

Back in Worcester "deaf children started teaching me". She also volunteered to interpret for deaf people at social events "because using the language is the only way to learn it".

She feels oralists in deaf education -- teachers who use the spoken language, the advocates of "lip-reading" -- have been responsible for "repressing sign language which uses visual physical gesturing".

"Lip reading is oral and aural. The use of voice creates a lot of confusion and oppression because it defines 'deafness' in terms of hearing people."

The deaf empowerment movement has been lobbying since the 80s for deaf rights and the acceptance of sign language as the medium of instruction at schools for the deaf.

SA activist Kobus Kellerman had once said: "How can you be a full person if you have no language?"

Naomi says: "South African sign language is part of deaf people's identity. Without it literacy is a real problem because many deaf people, most of whom are black, are functionally illiterate."

Like any social movement, the Deaf Consciousness Movement has schisms and splits. There are 14 different South African sign language user groups. Naomi says: "People are often geographically isolated and as part of the empowerment process there is a move to work for one SA sign language."

But she says all user groups are able to understand each other.

These problems pale in comparison to having no sign language at all -- which she equates to "intellectual oppression".

Ironically, she says 85 to 95 percent of parents of deaf children are themselves able to hear. Too many parents have shunned the world of sign language and instead see their children as "medical cases".

"Doctors are also too often ignorant about sign language and refer children to speech therapists and audiologists who generally do not inform parents about the pure power of the visual medium represented by SA sign language."

She spoke of how she first introduced the concept of sign language as a "natural first language" to her classes.

"There was disbelief."

"However, as they progressed in learning to read English they realised they could only do it because I had signed to them the differences between sign language and English."

Once deaf children "claim sign language as their own", they become motivated to work at their English studies.

"They clearly enjoy the learning process and actively engage with it. They don't sit there like moron~s!"

"They become confident and questioning and more expressive of their own ideas and thoughts -- and they are free to do so because they can sign it to me. They are no longer stuck in a language in which they are unable to express themselves fluently."

Teachers and administrators are still a big thorn in the side for her.

"Many teachers at our schools for the deaf come from the old system when sign language was not acknowledged as a national language."

Through the entire deaf consciousness process, some schools have become actively involved in training their teachers to use sign language, but "the trainers are overwhelmed and in short supply".

"Schools often don't want to acknowledge that their teachers can't sign. Instead of addressing the issue they try to hide it."

What angers her most, is when schools for the deaf respond to poor results with excuses like "the child has a language problem" or "they can't understand abstract concepts" and even "they find it hard to understand humour".

Her most severe criticism is reserved for Education Minister Kader Asmal, who said recently that "all official languages" were catered for in the new 35-subject curriculum.

"Sign language is not there because it is not recognised as an official language. Thousands of South Africans are discriminated against. Deaf children, the majority of whom are black, cannot choose to study their own language. They are given no option to learn through and about their own language."

The issue ought to be a matter for the law.

"There should be legislation pertaining to all educators of deaf children who should have no option but to be able to teach through the medium of sign language -- or they should not be allowed to teach deaf children.

She ends the interview using sign to say "New South Africa". '

Her hand bunches into a fist, then opens up to make a curvy wave signifying the bulging African continent and ends with a finger pointing to the southernmost tip.

Her face accentuates the gesture. It is amazing.

Copyright © 2002 East Cape News. All rights reserved.