UFS helps “rewrite history”

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Sabrina Dean

A member of the team working on the national curriculum for SA Sign Language (SASL) says they are hopeful it can be formally presented as an official school language in SA by next year. Doctor Philemon Akach of the Department of South African Sign Language at the University of the Free State says he is part of the curriculum management team working on compiling a suitable curriculum for deaf pupils who wish to sit their exams with SASL as a first language.

Akach says the CMT was established by a court order after a parent in KZN took the education department to court as there wasn’t a suitable paper in place for his deaf son. “He had chosen to do SASL as a language option but he couldn’t because there was no set paper,” he said. Although not yet recognised as one of South Africa’s official languages, SASL is recognised as an official language for education thanks to an act passed in parliament in 1996. Government is currently in the process of looking at making SASL the country’s twelfth official language. Deputy Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, told Bloemfontein Courant last week her department has been tasked with “getting the ball rolling”.

She said, “When South Africa took the decision to have 11 official languages it was an affirmation that language defines who you are, language informs the culture, language actually determines where you belong… so that was a very important statement… to say no South African’s language is better than another’s. “The same applies for deaf people, they need to be awarded the same opportunities and in 1996 when the constitution was negotiated there was acknowledged that sign language is an important language for deaf people,” she said.

She said the process to have SASL adopted as the twelfth official language will be a lengthy one. It will require, among others, a constitutional amendment, the drafting of a green paper for public comment and parliamentary involvement.  She said they are currently engaging with relevant departments such as the Department of Sport, Arts, Culture and Recreation and the South African Language Board. Bogopane-Zulu said another important point will be to ensure the department protects the rights of deaf people to be party to the process, as well as ensuring that necessary resources are made available. “SASL language is the fifth most spoken language in South Africa. All of us, without knowing, use sign language in some way or the other and it is therefore important for us to standardise and develop the language,” she said.

Akach meanwhile said there are more than 600 000 people, and that is only deaf people, whose first language is SASL. “Unlike other minorities like Khoi or San or other linguistic minorities, deaf people are a special linguistic minority who do not have a choice other than SA Sign Language as a medium of face-to-face communication…
“It goes without saying that if SASL became official it will not only make the government look caring for its people, but it will also rewrite history,” he said.