Access to information is one of the number one challenges faced by deaf communities in South Africa.

The Centre for Deaf Studies (CFDS) at the University of Witwatersrand is ensuring that the deaf and hard of hearing communities in South Africa are kept in the loop about Covid-19 through a number of initiatives in South African Sign Language (SASL). 

This comes at a time when access to good quality information is crucial for the health and safety of all South Africans as the pandemic spreads across the globe. 

“Access to information is the number one challenge that deaf people in South Africa face,” says Professor Claudine Storbeck, the director of CFDS.

There are over four million deaf and hard of hearing people in the country, according to the South African National Deaf Association (SANDA). English is often their second or third language and so, “it’s hard to understand the difference between real news and fake news”, says Storbeck. 

CFDS has partnered up with a team of deaf filmmakers, editors and producers to develop resources that will provide the deaf community with the needed information about Covid-19. These include various adult resources as well as resources for children on EYEBUZZ, a YouTube channel created for the deaf community. Additionally, a WhatsApp hotline was established in order to facilitate other possible questions. 

The CFDS also assisted the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) in translating important documents about Covid-19 into South African Sign Language (SASL).

CFDS Whatsapp Hotline
Whatsapp 074 029 2764 Mondays-Fridays, 8am to 5pm. Video calls also welcome.
The South African government also has included deaf communities during lockdown by making resources available in SASL. 

In a statement released by Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, on Monday, March 30, all government speeches and addresses should include sign language interpreters. 

Nkoana-Mashabane says, “The department calls on all media organisations to ensure that televised press briefings have sign language Interpreters, that transcripts are made available, and closed captions is utilised for persons with hearing difficulties.” 

However, Storbeck argues that while having an interpreter present during government addresses is certainly helpful, “it’s not enough”. 

“There’s so much more that they’ve (deaf communities), needed to know. There are so many TV programmes, news programmes, radio interviews and videos going around, and it’s typically all auditory,” Storbeck says.

Robyn Swannack, who is a deaf member of the CFDS production team, adds, “We should be able to access more information than the news channels. It is important to keep in mind that SASL is our first/home language and many of us prefer to access the information in our language.”

Tshepiso Malete, who is part of the deaf community, said that the resources have helped him during lockdown. He said, “By watching the videos, it has helped me understand Covid-19 a lot better.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Deaf communities in South Africa face information inaccessibility which could prove especially dangerous in the time of Covid-19. Photo: Catia De Castro