Deaf South Africans to finally get their voice‚ as signing could soon become an official language

“The voice of the deaf has eventually been heard‚” said Shamila Surjoo‚ director of the KZN Blind and Deaf Society‚ as news broke that “sign” could soon become South Africa’s 12th official language.

On Tuesday‚ the Constitutional Review Committee recommended to parliament that South African Sign Language (SASL) be given official recognition. The committee‚ responding to a recommendation submitted by Deaf South Africa‚ declared that the move was “long overdue”.

The committee stated: “Deaf SA requested a review of sections 6 (1) and 6 (5) (a) [of the constitution] to include South African Sign Language (SASL) as an official language. Deaf SA was of the opinion that‚ while SASL is well recognised in the constitution and given a special status‚ it was not sufficient to enable deaf people to enjoy all constitutional rights.”

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As its formal recommendation‚ the committee said: “The National Assembly and the National Council of Province should facilitate an amendment of the constitution to include SASL as one of South Africa’s official languages.”

Surjoo said: “All the lobbying and awareness has eventually paid off.”

She said the deaf community had been campaigning for the recognition of SASL for several years.

“Way back in 2009‚ Kyle Springate‚ then a matriculant at Westville Boys High‚ wanted SA Sign Language to be recognised as one of his matric subjects. This led to subsequent court action to advocate for recognition.”

The KZN Blind and Deaf Society launched The Talk Sign Campaign in 2014. In a 2015 petition‚ Bruno Druchen‚ national director of Deaf SA‚ said that deaf people had no access to their rights unless SASL became available as a means of access to communication‚ information and other forms of human experience. He said at the time that the Bill of Rights had no significant value to the deaf community in the absence of SASL.

“Deaf people’s rights are built on SASL‚ but this only language of deaf people is not recognised as an official language.”

Recognising SASL as a language will have a significant impact on society‚ added Surjoo.

“It will encourage the hearing community to learn SASL to communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing. This breaks down the communication barrier that exists. The recognition of sign language will impact positively in service delivery as it is envisaged that more focus will be given at state and other sectors for sign language training and will also mean focus on teaching SASL at school level.”

There are currently an estimated 600 000 hearing-impaired people in South Africa.

Olympic swimmer Terence Parkin said deaf people are often marginalised due to lack of access to information.

Parkin‚ who is deaf‚ said: “With SASL becoming official‚ it is finally being seen as an important language for South Africans. Deaf people can now take their rightful place in society.”

President of the KZN Blind and Deaf Society‚ Justice Zak Yacoob‚ emphasised that it was a human right of every person who is deaf to be able to communicate.

Surjoo said she was confident that parliament would make the necessary change to the constitution. “Our sign language is uniquely South African and I am confident that the National Assembly will recognise the deaf community.”