Hearing the deaf

MEANT TO BE: Witsie, Chelsea van der Merwe fell in love with sign language after she attending the first class three years ago. Photo: Provided

MEANT TO BE: Witsie, Chelsea van der Merwe fell in love with South African sign language after attending her first class three years ago. Photo: Provided

Witsie, Chelsea van der Merwe, is the go-to-girl when it comes to making sure the deaf get heard.

Van der Merwe, a third year drama and South African sign language student (SASL), said Wits is one of the only institutions to offers a degree in sign language in the country. This year Wits also introduced an honours course in SASL, which is a first for the country.

Van der Merwe said she fell in love with sign language from the first class she attended.

“I went home after class that day and told my mom: ‘I want to sign, this is what I am meant to do.”

Van der Merwe managed to find a way to combine her passion for drama with her love for sign language by interpreting for and acting in many deaf films in Johannesburg.

“When they do a deaf production, they don’t even do auditions anymore. They call me straight away.”

Telling their stories

Van der Merwe administers theatre workshops for deaf people who use the platform to tell their stories and share the hardships of what life is like being deaf.

She said there was a deaf girl who told the story of being raped by acting it out on stage. Because the girl is deaf she couldn’t communicate to the police or to her family what had happened. She had also never been told about rape and did not know that she was not meant to bath before being tested for rape.[pullquote align=”right”]“Most people don’t know that sign language is actually not universal.” [/pullquote]

Another deaf man got tested for HIV and found out he was positive. He was not given a pre-test or post-test counselling or informed about the virus and how it can be managed with anti-retrovirals, because the counsellor could not communicate with him.

These educational productions create awareness about the deaf community in South Africa and expose the lack of support for them.

“Most people don’t know that sign language is actually not universal,” she said.

Creating awareness 

Van der Merwe was born in South Africa but has lived all over the world and was educated in Dubai.

Having dyslexia, she was sent to a special needs school for pupils with learning disabilities. In Dubai, special needs teachers are highly qualified and know how to teach these children, said Van Der Merwe.[pullquote]There are over 800 000 people in South Africa who are hearing impaired.[/pullquote]

“Moving back to Johannesburg was really hard for me because there is no place for dyslexic people in South Africa.”

Van der Merwe said in South Africa dyslexia is not seen as a disability and there are no “special concessions” for people with learning issues. Because of this she felt a connection with deaf people as another minority group which is compromised in society and marginalised.

“I just wanted to help people overcome the barrier.”

Empowering the deaf

There are over 800 000 people in South Africa who are hearing impaired. For them, getting an education is very difficult as they cannot meet the requirements to get accepted into university.

South African universities require applicants to have been educated in two official languages, but do not recognise sign language in this regard.

Van der Merwe has plans to start a company that will introduce sign language and deaf awareness to the corporate world. This would mean that banks, courts, offices hospitals and other institution will all eventually have a communication policy that includes the deaf.

Van der Merwe also teaches deaf children at St Vincent School for The Deaf in Melrose every Friday.