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October 11, 2004

Silent struggle for sign language rights

From: Daily News, South Africa - Oct 11, 2004

By Barbara Cole

Half a million South Africans use sign language as their first language - and that's more than those who speak Sotho and Venda.

Yet, while Sotho and Venda are recognised as official languages, sign language is not. And that means that the deaf do not have access to society, and that sign language interpreters are not officially recognised.

"If our president goes to a summit meeting in Japan where the proceedings are in Japanese, he is given access to the proceedings through an English interpreter," said matric teacher Ingrid Parkin of the Fulton School for the Deaf in Gillitts, outside Durban.

If sign language became official - it would be the 12th language - teachers would get funding from the government (governing bodies have to foot the costly bill at the moment) and they would get access to educational materials, videos and teaching aids.

"Deaf people would be able to fight for their rights in court, tell the doctor what is wrong with them (cases of doctors misdiagnosing deaf people abound) and they would be able to explain to the teacher the best way to make them understand."

They would also be able to visit a psychologist, marriage counsellor, church...

Now, as the country's deaf community celebrate the International Week of Deaf People, Parkin has called on the government to "explore ways in which it can give its deaf population access to South African society."

The provision of training for sign language interpreters - and their recognition - would be one way, she said.

Sign language was not a system of gestures and mime. It was a fully developed language that fulfilled all the criteria of any other language.

Parkin, a matric teacher, is on a national task team set up by the government to develop sign language and to come up with correct terminology and a dictionary for a national sign language.

She is married to Olympic swimming star Terence Parkin, and they have a hearing daughter, Leya, who is a "chatterbox" in both speech and sign language.

©2004 The Daily News & Independent Online (Pty) Ltd. All rights reserved.