Johannesburg - Only 10 percent of deaf children start their schooling equipped with the skill to communicate in the South African Sign Language (SASL).
The other 90 percent, who are born into families that can hear, enter the educational system without any formal knowledge of a language – spoken or signed – or a means to communicate and be understood by those outside their family.
This means in the early stages of their schooling career, the majority of children with hearing disabilities can’t access the curriculum because there’s no medium of instruction through which the process of teaching and learning can take place.
As a child who can hear picks up their home language from hearing it at home, a deaf child exposed to the sign language would learn it naturally. However, the majority of deaf children in South Africa are born into families that can hear and they develop a unique and informal way of communicating with the people close to them.
But communicating with someone outside their family, like a teacher, is close to impossible so before the process even begins, the academic development of these pupils is hindered.
A draft policy the Department of Basic Education recently released for public comments is intent on changing this.
When delivering the department’s budget vote earlier this year Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga announced the department’s plans to develop and roll out a sign language curriculum in schools for deaf pupils from next year.
Last month, the department published the draft policy on the proposed structure of the SASL curriculum.
While the policy is still being developed, in anticipation of the new curriculum, provincial departments of education have started training teachers and district officials.
Prior to this, teachers who had training in the SASL did so on their own initiative or through funding obtained by schools through sponsorships.
Currently, 80 percent of our teachers don’t know the country’s sign language.
The SASL is described as “a visual-spatial language... that has its own district linguistic structures and languages conversations and is not based on any written or spoken language”.
The policy proposes that the SASL be introduced as a home language and not as first additional language in schools.
“In South Africa, many children start using their additional language, English, as a Language of Learning and Teaching (LoLT) in Grade 4. This means that they must reach a high level of competence in English by the end of Grade 3 and they need to be able to read and write well in English.”
“For deaf learners the language of learning and teaching will remain the SASL through to Grade 12 alongside a written language which is the language of literacy and provides access to all written text. For this reason deaf learners too need to be able to read and write well in English,” the policy says.
Philip Cook, principal at De la Bat School for the deaf in Worcester, Western Cape, said although the policy was long overdue, its introduction was welcome.
He said the focus has to be on developing the teachers’ skills base when it came to teaching through the SASL.
Cook said thus far people who had qualified to teach deaf pupils only had to know how to sign, they didn’t have to have a teaching qualification.
“The fact that you can sign doesn’t mean you can teach. Just because you can speak isiXhosa, for example, doesn’t mean you can teach it. The question is, do we have the staff to teach and (does that) staff have the skills to communicate fluently?”
Cook said only the 10 percent of children who were exposed to the SASL at home have the linguistic base in place when they start their schooling.
“Teaching has always used the spoken language as a basis, and used sign as a add-on. So the majority of children don’t have full access to the spoken language and no full access to the sign language. It’s a confusing place to be in,” he said.
Cook said for the new policy to succeed, there also has to be a focus on the provision of the required teaching and study material and the development of terminology and a broadened vocabulary.
“If signs for a certain concept don’t exist, they have to be created. If terminology doesn’t exist, it has to be created,” he said.
“If you want to teach, you have to have the expertise that will develop the subject. In South Africa, we place a lot of emphasis on assessment so we also need to develop skills at the district level.”
Cook said in order to expand the pool of skilled teachers, bursaries must be made available to young teacher students who wish to teach at schools for deaf pupils. He said training must be imposed on the staff who are already in the system.
“The department must get people to do proper, accredited training (at higher education institutions). I’m not talking about a three-week course but a thorough training process. A lot of opportunistic organisations have mushroomed because there’s money to be made to provide teacher training,” Cook said.
He said improving the quality of education of children with hearing disabilities will demand a lot of work for everyone involved.
“It’ll take a lot of work to transform... and we have that opportunity now,” Cook said. - The Star