About four million South Africans suffer a specific neglect and humiliation. They are of all colours and backgrounds. Their minds are sound but they are often treated otherwise. Many of them communicate with an advanced language that is not officially recognised. The great majority are denied the careers and professions of their natural ability. Many, perfectly intelligent, leave school with the literacy competence of eight year olds. Frequently they are shunned or ignored. Their plight seldom makes the headlines.
These are the deaf or partly deaf people of South Africa.
This week saw one of those rare occasions when public attention was drawn to their situation. Kyle Springate, a matric pupil in KwaZulu-Natal, took the Department of Education to court to declare South African Sign Language an official examination subject. Springate, who suffers more than 90% hearing loss from a congenital condition, had opted for sign language as a second language since Grade 10. Months before the final examination, the Department of Education, which for over two years had let him believe it was a matric subject, told him it was not. This made it unlikely that he would receive the matric exemption he needed to be accepted for university study.
The Department eventually settled out of court, agreeing to endorse his matric certificate, without a second language. However, Springate will continue with his second application to have sign language declared a matric subject.
The Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA) gives some appalling figures on the treatment of deaf children in South Africa. Only 12 of our 47 schools for the hearing impaired offer matric. Only 14% of the teachers are fluent in sign language. Thousands of deaf children have no access to education at all. The overwhelming majority of deaf children never reach matric and only a handful reach university.
What above all distinguishes humans from other animals is skill in language. This gave us ascendancy over bigger, stronger, faster animals. The human brain is to a large extent a language machine. We learn language with our brain. Hearing is simply a portal between the brain and the outside world of people and things. With deaf people this portal is faulty. In some cases it is possible to repair the portal. In other cases it is necessary to establish another. Hearing aids amplify sounds, in part at least, and sign language replaces the ear with the eye for communication. Sign language is a visual language that has been developed and refined over many years and is uniquely created for those who rely on visual information to learn a language and therefore to receive information and knowledge about the world around them. It is an intricate, grammatical language that can express the entire range of human experience, including abstract ideas. It is a fully-fledged natural human language, equivalent in all respects to other human languages.
We marvel at the ability of very young children to pick up any language. A deaf child, recognised early, can similarly pick up sign language from about one year old. So armed, deaf children could be educated to the highest levels and follow rewarding careers. Instead, in a tragically high number of cases, they are misdiagnosed. The dreadful old prejudices about the "deaf and dumb" still exist. In today's classes of up to 60 per class and with Inclusive Education the thrust of the education department, this would exacerbate that prejudiced perception.
The Constitution of South Africa recognises sign language. In Chapter 1 (Founding Provisions), Section 6 (5), it says that the Pan South African Language Board (Pansalb) must "promote, and create conditions, for the development and use of" sign language. In 1996, DeafSA applied to PanSALB for South African Sign Language to be recognised as an official language. This application is entirely in the spirit of the Constitution.
Thirteen years later, it seems that PanSALB has done nothing about it except to hold "workshops" and have projects to "raise awareness". PanSALB's constitutional duty is to protect minority languages, including sign language, but it seems to have done precious little to standardise South African Sign Language or prepare a school curriculum for it.
Unfortunately, in 15 years of democracy, this is just another example of the difference between high flown ideology and reality. Little has been done to protect and promote most of the 11 official languages, and almost nothing has been done to promote sign language. Judging by its record, PanSALB is yet another failed institution, providing comfortable jobs for a small elite who neglect their vital mandate.
There is a wide range of deafness. For profoundly deaf children (who have no access to speech sounds even with amplification), sign language must be taught as soon as possible. For some children, hearing aids can be of great benefit, and these children will then be able to use oral languages. In certain cases cochlear implants may help to give some useful hearing, but they are expensive. It is crucial to diagnose all deafness early so the impact of language delays are minimal.
Financial means also differ widely among the deaf. The rich will be able to send deaf children to those very few schools in South Africa that cater fully for them in small classes, and will be able to afford the best hearing aids and medical procedures. The poor will not.
There is a deep moral question here. We believe it is morally right that the state should provide for those that cannot provide for themselves. This applies particularly to medical care. We also realise that in a developing country resources are limited. We have very complex choices to make.
We believe in human rights but we also believe in human responsibilities. Consider two extreme examples. First, a healthy young man, fully aware of the dangers, nevertheless has unprotected sex with multiple partners. He gets AIDS and asks that the state should give him anti-retroviral drugs free of charge. Should the state provide? Second, a baby is born partly deaf. Her parents ask that the state provide her with a hearing aid because they cannot afford it. Should the state provide? And what about a cochlear implant in the case of profound deafness? What about the requirements of children with a range of other disabilities?
It is time we started having a debate about rights and responsibilities in our country. There is a growing assumption that people have the right to behave as they like, and the state has the responsibility to pay for the consequences. Thus we spend 80% of the public health budget on the consequences of personal "life-style choices" ranging from unprotected sex, to alcohol and drug abuse, and the resulting trauma and violence. Far too little is spent on people who had no choice in their medical conditions. When individuals make personal choices that have profound public consequences, it is a legitimate subject for public debate, especially when others are deprived as a result.
Under our new democracy, some groups have advanced their rights and some have not. Because of the nature of politics, those who shout loudest get the most attention. In the DA we greatly admire the achievements of the Treatment Action Campaign, who have successfully challenged the denialism of the Mbeki era on HIV/AIDS and played a large part in making the state provide free anti-retroviral drugs. The past decade has seen important advances in upholding the rights of people with HIV. There must now be an equal emphasis on responsibility. The more we spend on treating preventable illnesses, the less there is for the unpreventable conditions that confront many of our citizens with severe challenges throughout their lives.
The disabled have been far less vocal than other lobby groups. Being quiet, they are often quietly ignored. It behoves the rest of us to listen to them much more carefully.
The DA's mission is to ensure that South Africa becomes an open, opportunity society for all. That is why we uphold the rights of people living with disabilities to secure state support to realise their potential. In this newsletter, actuated by the Kyle Springate court challenge, we focus specifically on the deaf.
We want everything possible to be done to diagnose deafness in infants, in its various degrees of severity, so that the necessary interventions can be prescribed.
Hearing aids are expensive but are becoming cheaper and better. State hospitals do now dispense free hearing aids and recently Baragwanath hospital has performed its first cochlear implant.
We want South African Sign Language to become an officially recognised language and a matric subject. The statistics are uncertain but there are probably about a million South Africans communicating by sign language. This matches the number of people speaking three of our eleven existing official languages. In Uganda, sign language is already an official language under its constitution.
The DA welcomes the government's stated commitment, under pressure from the Kyle Springate case and persistent DA questioning in Parliament, to have sign language as a matric subject. However, it remains to be seen whether the Minister's words lead to any action. If PanSALB had done its constitutional duty, this would have happened long ago.
In the Western Cape, the DA is working hard to begin sign language teaching in Grade 10 next year, with a view to making it a matric subject by 2012.
This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance, August 21 2009
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