Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) recognizes that any people’s socio-economic development is not really possible if their language is marginalized or ignored. Linguists have long acknowledged that language is one single trait that distinguishes humans from other species (see, for example O’Grady et al 1996:1). Moreover, humans owe their social, political, economic and technological advances to language. It is thus no surprise that the most advanced countries of the world at any given period of human history have been those that have made best use of their mother tongues and not those who have attempted to rely on foreign languages. This paper outlines the challenges and achievements in efforts at developing and promoting Sign Language in Southern Africa with special reference to 10 countries in which the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) has a mandate to operate. The paper consists of four sections. Following the introduction which includes a brief description of the structure and thematic programmes of OSISA, some marginalised populations whose rights OSISA is committed to advocate for are briefly outlined. A presentation of the state of national associations of the Deaf and of Sign Language as well as challenges and possibilities these groups face in the 10 countries of OSISA’s focus follow in the third and fourth sections respectively. In the fifth section the contribution of OSISA to the development and promotion of Sign Language is outlined and plans for future work are presented before outlining some conclusions.
Perhaps the best way to introduce the topic of this paper is to state what is supposed to be obvious to deaf people but not so obvious to hearing and speaking laypersons. This is the fact that Sign Language is a language just like any other natural language. Moreover, it is the only language used by the Deaf and other hearing impaired people. However, it is important to note that although it is the only language used by the Deaf, it is not required by them alone for deaf persons live amongst hearing and speaking members of their respective communities who include family and friends, colleagues at work places, fellow learners and educators in schools and tertiary institutions as well as the general public. In recognition of these important facts, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) based in Johannesburg, is committed to advocating for the development, promotion and use of Sign Language for both formal and informal purposes. Before presenting the state of national associations of the Deaf in the 10 countries of OSISA’s focus, it is helpful to briefly describe below OSISA’s vision and mission and its thematic programmes for the present work is based on the work being undertaken by this regional foundation.
The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) is a leading Johannesburg-based foundation established in 1997, working in ten Southern Africa countries: Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. OSISA works differently in each of these 10 countries, according to local conditions. There are specialised programme managers in Angola, DRC, Zimbabwe and Swaziland – these being the four countries in which significant structural governance questions still obtain.
OSISA is part of a network of autonomous foundations, established by George Soros, located in Eastern and Central Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the US.
OSISA’s mission is to promote and sustain the ideals, values, institutions and practice of open society. Its vision is that of a vibrant Southern African society in which people, free from material and other deprivation, understand their rights and responsibilities and participate democratically in all spheres of life.
OSISA has structured its work along strategic thematic areas as follows:
· The “building-block” programme of Education;
Through its Language Rights Programme, OSISA advocates for the development, promotion and use of the indigenous languages of Southern Africa. Whilst recognising the role of official languages such as English, French or Portuguese and that of national languages such as Setswana in Botswana, siSwati in Swaziland and Sesotho in Lesotho, OSISA believes that all the other indigenous languages of Africa are important for the socio-economic development of the majority of the African people. Moreover, people whose language rights are violated cannot truly enjoy any of their other human and people’s rights. OSISA is committed to advocating for the rights of the Deaf in the region and realizes that the right of the Deaf to communicate and to be communicated to through the use of Sign Language is an indispensible ingredient of their entire human and peoples’ rights. This paper will thus discuss specifically the Deaf and Sign Language which is their only means of communication with both their fellow Deaf and their hearing and speaking counterparts.
As stated in the introduction, this paper discusses the state of the Deaf and of Sign Language interpretation in Southern Africa with special reference to 10 countries of the region. It is important from a human rights point of view to consider this issue because the Deaf form part of the marginalised populations of the continent in general and of Southern Africa in particular. It is OSISA’s view that the way any society or nation treats its marginalised populations can be a useful indicator of the extent to which the given society or nation handles matters of human rights and socio-economic development for its members or citizenry. Whilst this paper looks only at the Deaf and Sign Language interpreters, it is important to note that there are other marginalised populations besides the hearing impaired. Marginalised populations besides the Deaf or hearing impaired include but are not restricted to the following:
• People with disabilities;
• Indigenous peoples e.g. the San, the Twa, the Aborigines, Amerindians, etc;
• Persons deprived of liberties, e.g. prisoners, detainees, etc;
• Sex workers;
• Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals (LGB); Men who Sleep with Men (MSM) & Women who Sleep with Women (WSW); Transgender peoples;
• Migrants - including labour migrants & mobile populations.
Each of these marginalized populations has rights like any other citizens of their respective nations. Their rights have to be respected and protected. When people are marginalized they are not treated with dignity. From a language rights point of view, disrespect for marginalized populations takes the form of the type of language used in talking about them. This includes what names are used to refer to them. In most cases references to marginalised populations are negative and derogatory. In this regard respecting such people’s rights must include referring to them by names or labels that they prefer themselves. Where a given marginalized population has a language unique to their group, their language must be respected, protected and given official recognition. This is the case for various indigenous peoples such as the San people of Southern Africa found mainly in Botswana, Namibia, Angola, South Africa and elsewhere. Of all marginalised populations who are discriminated against on the basis of their language are the Deaf mainly because their language is signed rather than spoken. The rest of this paper deals with this group and Sign Language which is their only means of communication with both their fellow Deaf and the hearing members of their communities.
ASSOCIATIONS OF THE DEAF AND OF SIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETERS
The Deaf in Southern Africa recognize the need for them to fight for their rights. It is also evident that they are aware that the use of Sign Language is one of their rights. Moreover, both the Deaf and Sign Language interpreters know that they need each other because without Sign Language interpreters, the Deaf would not be able to communicate with the hearing who do not know Sign Language and without the Deaf, Sign Language interpreters would be redundant. For this reason, the challenges of the Deaf cannot be divorced from those of Sign Language interpreters and vice-versa. However, for the purposes of this discussion, the two will be dealt with under different sub-headings starting with the state of the national associations of the Deaf below.
State of National Associations of the Deaf
In Spite of the fact that the more enlightened deaf people are aware of most of their rights, all the Deaf generally face many challenges. Whilst most of these challenges are external, others are internal. The challenges include the following:
· Multiplicity of Sign Language varieties used in the same country;
· Non-existence of learning and teaching materials suitable for the Deaf;
· Lack of teachers trained and qualified to teach the Deaf through the medium of Sign Language;
· High levels of illiteracy amongst the Deaf;
· High unemployment rate for the Deaf;
· Poor or no delivery of public services to the Deaf due mainly to inadequate budget allocation from central governments to the Deaf.
· Proliferation of organizations/associations purporting to work for the rights of the Deaf in the same country;
· Competition for resources and rivalries between various organizations/associations of the Deaf in the same country;
· Governance challenges such as executive committee/board members staying in office illegally beyond their constitutional terms;
· Lack of any organizations/associations of the Deaf in some countries.
In this discussion, we will not dwell much on the external challenges because their cause is well known and clear to both the Deaf themselves and OSISA. What is required is for the Deaf and civil society to vigorously advocate for the socio-economic rights of the Deaf. To do this properly, the following steps need to be taken:
· Track allocation of resources meant for delivery of public services to deaf communities such as quality education and good health;
· Facilitate the standardization and harmonization of national Sign Language varieties;
· Support the production of national standard unified Sign Language dictionaries;
· Advocate for the proper training of teachers of the Deaf to teach through the medium of Sign Language;
· Advocate for the production and provision of learning and teaching materials suitable for use by deaf learners and their teachers.
The above are relatively long term objectives which the Deaf, civil society and other like-minded persons will have to fight for. Of more immediate concern, however, are the challenges caused by the Deaf themselves and which only the Deaf must address. Firstly, the Deaf in each country must be united because any misunderstandings or divisions amongst them can only hinder any progress in their fight for and achievement of their socio-economic rights. In some countries, the national association of the Deaf has split into two separate associations leading to rivalries and competition for resources. In other countries, the national association of the Deaf has simply collapsed and become virtually moribund due to unresolved disputes amongst their members. In yet other countries, a splinter association from the original national association has become relatively more active than the original one but both exist. Listening to members of the various factions of associations of the Deaf, one hears different reasons for these misunderstandings. They include the following:
· The profound deaf claim that those members who are not profound deaf tend to take leading positions in the executive committees and do not really represent those that are profound deaf;
· Those with relatively better educational background claim that the Deaf who have little or no formal education do not understand many issues and thus tend to create confusion in the national associations.
These challenges cannot be resolved by outsiders but by the Deaf themselves. Moreover, for an outsider, each of the two claims above may sound plausible. One way of addressing such misunderstanding is for the two groups of the Deaf to sit together and listen to each other’s concerns and together discuss ways of resolving their differences.
A related challenge is that of bad governance in the national associations of the Deaf. In some countries, executive members have tended to stay in office beyond their constitutional mandate. For example, in one country where OSISA facilitated a meeting of members of the national association from all provinces, an interim committee was democratically elected which was authorized by members to lead the process of reviving the association that had been inactive for over six years. However, when the OSISA-facilitated roundtable was over and members returned to their various stations, the old committee which had over-stayed in office and had been inactive refused to vacate their seats. The new interim committee then decided to continue operating under a new association yet to be registered. In OSISA’s view, undemocratic issues such as these are the main cause of misunderstandings and splits in the national associations. OSISA wishes to appeal to the Deaf in the respective countries to respective their constitutions for the good of all the people with hearing impairments.
State of Sign Language and of Associations of Sign Language Interpreters
In this section, we present in a nutshell the following issues concerning Sign Language and Sign Language interpretation:
· Varieties of Sign Language and efforts at standardization within each country;
· Availability of Sign Language interpreters (SLis) and existence of national associations of SLis;
· Relations between SLis and the Deaf.
Varieties of Sign Language and Standardization Efforts
Like in other countries of Africa and of the world at large, different varieties of Sign Language exist in Southern African countries. In some countries, efforts have been made in the past to produce a single Sign Language dictionary. However, such dictionaries have not been widely accepted by members of the deaf community. The main reason for this has been that the dictionaries were produced by Sign Language interpreters with lay assistance from linguists with little or no knowledge of Sign Language and of deaf culture. The other challenge was that the research was done in a hurry and was not fully completed due to insufficient funding. For the sake of regional integration, it is important for all the Sign Language varieties of Southern Africa to be harmonized into a single standard unified variety that would preferably be known as Southern African Sign Language. In the long term, are the regional varieties of Africa would later be harmonized into one rich African Sign Language. This would mean that the Deaf on the entire continent could go anywhere on the continent and still be able to communicate perfectly and with relative ease with their fellow Deaf and all hearing people who will have learnt that single continental variety. For this to be meaningfully realized there will be a need for a sufficient number of Sign Language interpreters to be trained. The availability of Sign Language interpreters is currently of concern continent-wide as the section which follows outlines.
Availability Sign Language Interpreters (SLis)
Another common challenge in the countries of Southern Africa is the fact that there are not enough qualified interpreters. Furthermore, the few who exist have received what one may refer to as ‘crash courses’ lasting 4 – 8 weeks. Yet another challenge is the lack of proper certification for those who complete such Sign Language interpretation courses as the courses are not run by recognized institutions of learning but rather by existing Sign Language interpreters. Equally worrying is that in certain instances the trainers of trainers do not include the Deaf. Another problem is that once trained, such interpreters operate as free lancers for in most countries there are no registered national associations of Sign Language interpreters. Reasons for the non-existence of national associations of the Deaf vary. In some countries authorities do not approve the registration of associations of Sign Language interpreters because they consider interpreters to be part of the Deaf and that they must thus belong to the existing national association of the Deaf. In other instances, the interpreters themselves have not been able to organize themselves into an association. This is either due to insufficient numbers of interpreters or due to misunderstandings between the interpreters themselves.
Relations between Sign Language Interpreters and the Deaf
In some countries Sign Language interpreters and the Deaf get on reasonably well. In other countries, however, the two groups appear to be suspicious of each other’s intentions. We will consider examples of each type of relationship. In one country a number of interpreters got together and formed an association of Sign Language interpreters. Initially, they were not aligned to any association of the Deaf. However, they had a pool of deaf persons whom they served as need arose. Later, the deaf individuals whom they served more and more regularly formed an association of the Deaf. The result was the emergence of two associations which worked so well together that they became like a single organization. At the moment the two associations share offices on the same floor of an urban building. Although their offices are separate, they share the same reception with a receptionist/interpreter who serves both associations. They share utilities and together pay for such utilities. This arrangement has so far appeared to be a blessing for both associations and not at a curse. An opposite scenario was one where a number of Sign Language interpreters, some of whom are general linguists and academics decided to undertake Sign Language research for the purpose of producing a standard Sign Language dictionary for the country. These academics/Sign Language interpreters prepared a project proposal and request for funding which they submitted to a donor. The proposal was subsequently approved for funding. At this stage, the interpreters felt that they could not undertake Sign Language research without the participation of the deaf community for whom Sign Language was the first and only language. Thus they approached the association of the Deaf and informed them that they had acquired funding for such a project. Although the funding had been approved, no grant agreement had been signed yet between the donors and the interpreters/academics. When the association of the Deaf heard this, they were not amused and accused the interpreters of wanting to use money which was meant to be for the Deaf. They insisted that the grant be in the name of the association of the Deaf and not in the name of the interpreters/who had conceived and prepared the project proposal. In their hind wisdom, the interpreters ‘gave in’ and requested the prospective funders to give the grant to the association of the Deaf. What followed was not a happy story because it was not easy for the researchers to access the money when they needed to go into the field as members of the association of the Deaf were not always available to release the funds. The interpreters interpreted this to mean that the Deaf felt it was their money and did not want the interpreters/academics to use it. That project thus took longer to complete than it would have otherwise taken if there had been cooperation and involvement of both groups from the conception of the project. This was a hard but useful lesson not only for the two groups but also for the funders.
In consideration of the challenges stated in the foregoing sections, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) is committed to supporting initiatives that undertake the following:
· Practical Sign Language research leading to the production of standard unified national Sign Language dictionaries;
· Advocacy for the provision of appropriately trained teachers qualified to teach deaf learners;
· Advocacy for appropriate training of Sign Language interpreters to facilitate the provision of public service delivery
ü Delivery justice;
ü Police service;
ü Immigration & customs services;
ü Banking service;
ü Medical services; etc
OSISA’s Contribution so Far
· Regional conference for the deaf and for Sign Language interpreters held in Johannesburg in August 2008 where participants shared their experiences. The participants included the following:
ü Two deaf persons from a national association of the deaf;
ü One Sign Language interpreter from a national association of Sign Language interpreters;
ü One linguist;
ü One official from a relevant Government Ministry/Department or agency for persons with disabilities.
· Two regional roundtables for Sign Language interpreters from 9 countries of OSISA’s focus held in Johannesburg in November 2008 and February 2009. Resolutions included the formation of a regional association of Sign Language interpreters to be known as the Southern Africa Sign Language Interpreters Association (SASLIA);
· Support for the production of Sign Language dictionaries in the following countries:
ü In Zimbabwe – dictionary completed and launched in Harare on 27th May 2011; and in Bulawayo from where the work was coordinated by the King George VI Centre on 28th July 2011;
ü In Lesotho – at the time of writing, work completed and manuscript ready for publication and subsequent launch;
ü In Mozambique – Sign Language research in progress at the time of writing.
· Sensitisation of the public about the rights of the Deaf and the role of Sign Language
ü Advocacy for the Promotion, Development and Use of all Indigenous Languages and Sign Language of Lesotho – through a grant to the Young Christian Students Lesotho (YCSL) in 2009;
ü Advocacy and Sensitisation about the Deaf and the importance of Sign Language in Zambia – through a grant to the National Association of the Deaf and Development of Zambia (NADDZ) in 2010;
ü Training of trainers of Sign Language interpreters in Zambia – through a grant to the Association of Sign Language interpreters of Zambia (ASLIZ) in 2009;
· Facilitation and Networking
ü Provided support for deaf persons from eight Southern African countries to attend the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) congress which was held in Durban, South Africa in July 2011;
ü Provided support for Sign Language interpreters from eight Southern African countries to attend the World Association of Sign Language interpreters (WASLI) conference which took place in Durban, South Africa in July 2011.
Planned Work and Work in Progress at the Time of Writing
· Facilitate deaf communities in tracking the allocation of resources necessary for the delivery of public services such good health and quality education for the Hearing Impaired – first project started in Zambia in collaboration with the Association of Sign Language Interpreters of Zambia (ASLIZ), the National Association of the Deaf and Development of Zambia (NADDZ) and the Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR) in September 2011;
· Support for advocacy for appropriate education for deaf learners including nature and administration of examinations – first project started in Zimbabwe in collaboration with the King George VI Centre in September 2011;
· Support for production of Sign Language dictionaries in more countries of the region;
· Support for advocacy for the recognition of Sign Language as one of the official languages of the countries of the region.
Whilst OSISA’s Language Rights Fellowship Programme was set up for the purpose of advocating for the development, promotion and use of all the marginalized indigenous African languages of Southern Africa, the organization has realized that Sign Language deserves special attention because it is the only language that the Deaf have at their disposal. Unlike mother tongue speakers of minority spoken languages who can learn other spoken languages in addition to their first language, the Deaf cannot learn any spoken language. For this reason, OSISA will continue to work with national associations of the Deaf and of Sign Language interpreters to ensure that this language is developed sufficiently enough for it to be used for all formal and informal purposes. Furthermore, OSISA will always welcome collaboration with other like-minded organizations and individuals so that together they can provide more meaningful support for the development of Sign Language. In concluding this paper, it is important to state that OSISA’s contribution to the cause of the Deaf is not confined to Sign Language alone. This paper is mainly about Sign Language because the programme at OSISA which the writer leads deals with language rights. However, other OSISA programmes are also concerned about other rights that the Deaf deserve. They include the right to good health, the right to quality education, the right to access to information, the right to participate fully in the political affairs of their states, the right to economic justice, etc. The development and promotion of the use of Sign Language will enhance the protection of all these rights that the Deaf deserve. Furthermore, harmonizing all the Sign Language varieties of Africa will positively contribute to regional and continental integration and hence to African Renaissance.
O’Grady, William, Michael Dobrovolsky and Francis Katamba (Eds). 1996. Contemporary
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