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December 7, 2004

Discrimination against us rife, says DeafSA

From: Independent Online, South Africa - Dec 7, 2004

By Wendell Roelf

South Africa's deaf community is not enjoying the fruits of democracy, with about 95 percent of its four million members illiterate and sign language not among the official languages.

"President Thabo Mbeki must stop saying everything is fine in South Africa - it's not," said David Petro, a spokesperson for the Deaf Federation of SA (DeafSA), Cape Town.

"We are scared to go out, people mock us. We can't communicate because people don't know how to sign."

Petro said in every aspect of life, deaf people encountered difficulties and were ridiculed.

Every aspect of life, deaf people encountered difficulties and were ridiculed Speaking through an interpreter, he described an experience he'd had that typified the daily frustrations the deaf had to endure.

Two years ago, while walking to the shops, he said, he noticed a broken window in a library.

When he tried to tell a security guard using sign language, the man put a gun to his head, hit him, pepper-sprayed his face and tied his hands behind his back.

Petro said he had reported the assault to the police, Independent Complaints Directorate and the Human Rights Commission, but to date nothing had happened. "The police laughed at me."

On another occasion, when a neighbour complained to police about a noise in Petro's home, the police took Petro, dressed only in his sleeping shorts, to the Wynberg Magistrate's Court, where he had to sit "half-naked" while the case was processed.

"The prosecutors and police were laughing at me, they could not understand. Hearing people mock sign language - it's a stupid language, a monkey language they think."

Because of the breakdown in communication, he was even sent to Valkenberg psychiatric hospital, Petro said.

He said recognising sign language as the 12th official language would go a long way towards empowering the deaf, who, for example, paid television licences as hearing people did, yet programmes did not have subtitles and there was little translation into sign language.

Without proper access to information, the country's laws were not understood, the president was not heard and everyday chores became a nightmare.

"Racism in the deaf community is strong, which comes from a lack of information."

Deaf members of families were often abused and their pension and social grants kept from them or only part handed over.

As only about 2 percent of teachers at special deaf schools used sign language in classrooms, illiteracy rates were compounded, Petro said.

"Teachers just write on the boards and the children must copy. Matrics don't know how to read and write and 16-year-olds are given Sub A books. Why?"

At 33 special schools for the deaf that fell under DeafSA, many teachers used a hard-of-hearing pupil to sign to the deaf.

Petro was scathing of all political parties, which he said continued the "abuse of the deaf", and proposed that more resources be allocated so everyone could learn sign language.

Hennie Strydom, deputy chairman of the Pan South African Language Board, said the board had not received an application from DeafSA.

Recognising sign language as a 12th language was a political decision and would require a constitutional amendment.

"I don't think the political will is there to promote multilingualism, full stop. There's just a lot of rhetoric, especially before elections."

Draft legislation had been sitting in parliament for three to four years.

* This article was originally published on page 6 of The Cape Times on December 07, 2004

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