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  • Deaf Education in South Africa
  • Lucas Magongwa (bio)

This article focuses on factors affecting Deaf education, trends in Deaf education, and the views of a Deaf graduate. The history of Deaf education in South Africa is influenced by apartheid, which characterized the country from the 1940s. During apartheid, segregation was based on race and culture. This situation affected both language development and access to education by Deaf people.

Factors Affecting Deaf Education

Several factors negatively and positively affect the education of Deaf and hard of hearing learners. These factors include, among others, the shortage of Deaf role models for Deaf learners, South African Sign Language (SASL) not being recognized as a Language of Learning and Teaching (LOLT), and only a few teachers being fluent in SASL.

Shortage of Deaf Role Models for Deaf Learners

The Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA) records 500,000 Deaf people as users of SASL. Due to Deaf learners’ exclusion from equal education opportunities for many years, one out of three Deaf people is functionally illiterate (DeafSA, 2006). As a result of poor education or no education at all, Deaf South African adults are largely excluded from tertiary education opportunities and professional employment. Consequently, opportunities for Deaf graduates as professionals to return to school and act as role models are diminished. The literature reveals that about 80% of the Deaf population is unemployed. This means that Deaf children do not have enough appropriate adults to look to as role models. The whole issue means that Deaf adults cannot successfully be integrated into mainstream society as a result of their disempowering educational experiences. Although the Department of Education in South Africa has implemented adult basic education, Deaf adults remain discriminately excluded because there is no formal training of adult basic education providers as part of the accommodation of Deaf adults.

However, a small number of Deaf teachers and assistants are at some schools for the Deaf. These educators were either deafened while in the profession, trained in mainstream institutions of higher learning, or given specialized training at a small teacher training college in KwaZulu-Natal Province, which has since closed. Deaf assistants employed by some schools for the Deaf also have a crucial role in the education of Deaf learners. If accommodated properly, they can work in conjunction with educators by signing the content of the lessons to learners. They can generally serve as sign models and language mentors to Deaf learners.

It is important that young Deaf learners be exposed to Deaf adults as SASL role models. As mentioned earlier, many Deaf adults do not have enough formal education to gain access to university training and finally come back to schools for the Deaf as teachers.

South African Sign Language Not Recognized as a Subject in Schools

Since spoken languages constitute a barrier for Deaf learners to education, SASL is the language vehicle through which Deaf learners gain equal access to an education comparable to that of their hearing peers. The barrier of spoken language is acknowledged in the Department of Education’s Education White Paper 6 (2001), yet SASL is still not recognized as a school subject up to the grade 12 level.

According to DeafSA (1997), schools that profess to use SASL do not often achieve the desired outcomes because they tend to use Total Communication (a mixture of signs that are supported by a spoken language in an ad hoc [End Page 493] way). If not used consistently by well-trained, skilled signers, Total Communication not only undermines SASL but also creates a barrier to quality education for Deaf children. If SASL could be officially recognized and implemented as a subject, both teachers and learners would get an opportunity to distinguish Total Communication from SASL. This understanding would effectively lead to respect for SASL as a real language with a status equal to that of the spoken languages used in the education of hearing learners.

Some Deaf people, hard of hearing people, and children of Deaf adults use SASL as their first or preferred language in all of the nine provinces of South Africa. DeafSA statistics from 1994 indicated that about 1 million SASL users could be found in South Africa. The...


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