- The Teacher Experience: Deaf Education at Sizwile School: Challenges and Strengths
Don’t be afraid to fail. Schools of quality, as well as schools of Total Quality organizations, are places where it is safe to take risks.(Bonstingl, 1992, p. 42).
Deaf education within a South African context provides a diverse range of challenges that cannot be ignored if we want to see success and transform our Deaf schools into centers of quality. I shall explore Deaf education from two pertinent perspectives—language and quality teaching. The context is the Sizwile School for the Deaf, which is regarded as an economically disadvantaged school, commonly known as a “poor Black Deaf [End Page 498] school.” Closer attention will be paid to the crippling and enabling factors to determine how or if the language and the quality of teaching are compromised.
Sizwile School for the Deaf is situated in Dobsonville, Soweto, the only school for Deaf learners in the western areas of Johannesburg. Currently we have a learner population of 245 students, ranging from grade R (kindergarten) to grade 12. More than 95% of our learners are from hearing families who do not have the knowledge, experience, or resources to provide these learners with an accessible linguistic environment for the acquisition of either their natural home language (often referred to in South Africa as the “mother tongue”) or South African Sign Language (SASL), or cultural understanding or experience from a Deaf culture perspective. (For the purposes of the present article, Deaf culture is understood to mean a culture in which Deaf people find expression, belonging, and a sense of identity, and which is defined by SASL.)
Communication at home is predominantly done in gestures based on the spoken form of the vernacular languages (i.e., the native languages spoken by people in the community) ranging within the broad spectrum of the 11 official languages. Our learners come from multilingual communities where many of the primary caregivers are semiliterate. (Many families of Deaf learners engage orally in several of the official languages, on the basis of the culture of their family and of the local community in which they live.)
We admit learners at 3 years of age, but some as late as 7–12 years with little or no language ability. Many of our learners lag behind their hearing counterparts in such critical areas as linguistic proficiency, general and factual knowledge about the world around them, and basic social adjustment. The most important task for schools for the Deaf is to enable these learners with a language as soon as they are enrolled. It does become imperative that all kindergarten classes be taught by Deaf teachers in settings where the mode of communication is SASL.
The biggest and probably the most challenging issue for teachers at Sizwile School and other schools for the Deaf is the matter of sign language. All teaching is done in SASL (to the best of the teacher’s ability), and all written work is done in English. Teachers’ signing ability varies considerately, as SASL competency is not regarded as a core skill for teaching at any school for the Deaf in South Africa.
Teachers also use oral modes to communicate with learners who have some residual hearing. It is important to note is that oral communication is not confined to the English language, but, as I have previously mentioned, ranges within our rich multilingual-multicultural society for which South Africa is so famous.
The quality of teaching is often compromised by ill-equipped teachers, who, without an understanding and appreciation of Deaf education, lack the required teaching dedication, and lack fundamental insight into Deaf culture, the Deaf community, and their role as educators. Many teachers are daunted by SASL, and therefore lack the ability to be creative, motivational, and inspiring in their teaching.
Deaf learners are perceived as learners with challenges and barriers. Ideally, Deaf learners should be viewed as being like other learners, with the potential to achieve the same outcomes as their hearing counterparts. The school context must create opportunities for Deaf learners to succeed. (This perspective is embodied in the Integrated National Disability Strategy, which focuses on making...