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December 9, 2004

Our voice unheard, say deaf

From: Daily News, South Africa - Dec 9, 2004

Cape Town: South Africa's deaf community of over four million are not enjoying the fruits of democracy, with sign language not an official language and about 95% of deaf people illiterate.

"The president (Thabo Mbeki) must stop saying everything is fine in South Africa, it's not. We are scared to go out, people mock us. We can't communicate because people don't know how to sign," said David Petro, a spokesman for the Cape Town-based Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA).

Petro said that in every aspect of life, which hearing people took for granted, deaf people encountered difficulties and were openly ridiculed.

Speaking via an interpreter, Petro related an incident he experienced as a typical example of the frustration the deaf had to deal with daily.

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

He tried to tell a security guard about the window, but the man put a gun to his head after Petro tried to sign with his hands. He was hit, pepper-sprayed in the face and had his hands tied behind his back.

Petro said he reported the assault to the police, Independent Complaints Directorate and the Human Rights Commission.

"To date, nothing has happened. When I reported the matter, the police at Diep River police station laughed at me."

Petro said he was later taken to Wynberg Magistrate's Court by members of the same police station, who had responded to a complaint from a neighbour, only to sit with only his shorts on while his matter was processed.

"The prosecutors and police were laughing at me, they couldn't understand. Hearing people mock sign language - they think it's a stupid language, a monkey language," said Petro, adding that he was even sent to Valkenberg psychiatric hospital because of the communication breakdown.

Petro said that by recognising sign language as the 12th official language, the government would go a long way in empowering the deaf community who had, for example, to pay for TV licences for programmes with no subtitles or limited sign interpretation.

He said that 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 very strong, which comes directly from a lack of information."

Petro said deaf members of families were often abused, with pension and social grants unlawfully kept from them, or only partially handed over.

He said that with only about 2% of teachers at special deaf schools actually signing in classrooms, illiteracy rates were compounded.

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