THEODORUS DU PLESSIS | SA has taken bold step on sign language
More still needs to be done to realise inclusivity ideal
First, SA now becomes the first country in the world to recognise its national sign language as an official language in the constitution. This is different from the current 11 countries that officially recognise their sign languages.
Second, SA becomes only the seventh country in the world to recognise its national sign language as an official national language. The other countries are Uruguay (in 2001), New Zealand ( 2006), Poland ( 2012), Papua New Guinea and South Korea ( 2015), and Malta ( 2016). Four of these countries – New Zealand, Poland, South Korea, and Malta – have effected the officialisation of their national sign languages through a national sign language law. Uruguay has done so through disability legislation and Papua New Guinea through a dictation of the country’s national executive council.
Third, it took South African Sign Language (SASL) just as long to become an official language of the country, as was the case with SA’s nine indigenous languages (Zulu, Sotho, and so on.). These languages were first recognised as official languages at regional level in 1963 but were recognised as national official languages alongside Afrikaans and English from the interim 1993 constitution.
Achieving these exceptional milestones is due to a favourable sociopolitical climate globally around minority languages and the whole disability issue, sustained pressure from an active deaf lobby, and the active and decisive bottom-up actions by a string of role players.
In 1995, the governing ANC wanted sign language to become an official language, and eventually submitted exactly such a proposal to the Constitutional Assembly. Though the time was not ripe for this, the proposal resulted in sign language being declared an official language in the South African Schools Act of 1996 for the purposes of teaching and learning in public schools (note, not only Deaf schools), the inclusion of “sign language” in the constitutional language mandate of the Pan South African Language Board, and the granting of linguistic human rights to all South Africans, including the deaf, in terms of the Bill of Human Rights.
International experts give three reasons why the officialisation of countries’ national sign languages is significant:
- It can help to ensure that deaf people have access to education, employment, and other services in their ‘own language’.
- It can promote the use of sign languages in general and also help to preserve the languages.
- It can raise awareness about the so-called deaf culture and the contributions of the deaf.
All three reasons also bring us to the important issue of inclusivity. Education in particular plays an important role in this. To date, the Schools Act has been enforced in such a way that sign language has mainly been taught in deaf schools as a home language, while the law stipulates that it applies to all public schools. Now that sign language is also a national official language, perhaps the opportunity has come for the inclusion of sign language as home language in all schools. Such a thing would give inclusivity an enormous jolt.
Also of great importance is the establishment of a functional language dispensation that will include professional language services for the deaf as well. This will assist in realising the provisions of the Use of Official Languages Act of 2012, which state entities must establish communication for persons with sign language as preferred language.
- Du Plessis is professor emeritus in the department of South African Sign Language and Deaf Studies at the University of the Free State
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