Cape Town - A momentous landmark for the deaf community was reached this week as the National Assembly adopted a bill unopposed which would see South African Sign Language (SASL) become the 12th official language.
Last year, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services published the draft Constitution Eighteenth Amendment Bill, 2022 (the Bill) for comment.
The purpose was to amend Section 6 of the Constitution so as to include SASL as an official language. The Bill was passed on Tuesday with 306 votes in favour, no abstentions and no votes against it.
Deaf Federation of South Africa director Bruno Druchen said the landmark move would have significant benefits for the deaf community. Among just a few noted by Druchen are legal protections and rights for deaf people, including the right to use SASL in legal proceedings and to access SASL interpretation services.
This would encourage the provision of SASL interpretation services and other accommodations in settings such as education, health care and public services, he added.
Recognition of SASL could also promote the use of sign language in education, resulting in improved educational outcomes and promoting inclusion in the classroom. Awareness around deaf culture and language could also promote social inclusion by helping to reduce stigma and discrimination against deaf persons.
Provincial Parliament speaker Daylin Mitchell welcomed the National Assembly’s decision.
“This is an important step in recognising the rights of the more than 4 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in SA. Not only is this positive for providing access to services and information for people that are deaf and hard of hearing, but also for the promotion and development of SASL.”
Emeritus minister Dr Rocco Hough of the De la Bat Congregation for the Deaf in Bellville said: “Deaf people in South Africa started campaigning for sign language to be accepted as an official language about 30 years ago and we are delighted that the government finally adhered to our pleas.”
Hough, who had to learn sign language to communicate with members, has been ministering to the deaf community for 34 years. With wife Jean, the two were instrumental in making possible a Bible for the deaf, which launched in 2019.
“Hearing people do not have an idea how we suffer when it comes to communication in public, radio announcements, language that we don’t understand and being ignored in various spheres of life.
“This announcement not only rectifies the imbalance in communication, but will do a lot to better the situation where deaf people felt they were treated as second-class citizens.”
Hough said he hoped there would be more initiatives that would further strengthen these gains, such as the inclusion of sign language in mainstream schools and for the public to learn the benefits of sign language and to start using it.