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.


Deafinitely worth watching

SUBTITLES and sign language are normal parts of life, from going to lectures and watching movies, if you are deaf.


This week the Centre for Deaf Studies ran a series of films highlighting deaf education and deaf awareness. The screenings, which form part of a course for students who are studying deaf education, were open to the public.


“The centre [at Wits] was started 12 years ago by those with a heart for the deaf,” said Guy Mcilroy, deaf education lecturer.


“It is the only centre for deaf education in South Africa. We are showing [the films to the students] before they begin their teaching practicals which will motivate them as teachers.”


The centre, directed by Dr. Claudine Storbeck, is completely self-funded and has two branches: Education and High Hopes. The second part is a programme created to assist and support families with deaf children up to three years old. Centre staff visit families to teach them about communicating with a deaf child.


Wits sign language interpreter Augustine Letlale, who was at the screening, says it is important to tell the public about the lives of the deaf.


“[We need to] create awareness on issues of the deaf, the experiences of deaf children and how most of them grow up in hearing families. People need to see their experiences in mainstream communities as well.”


Letlale says the deaf in South Africa “are still marginalised, although there is progress”.


“Our government does seem to be doing something in terms of bringing issues of deafness into mainstream [society] such as bringing interpreters to government events and public broadcasting like the news.”


On Tuesday the film screened was Mr Holland’s Opus – a story about a music teacher who has a deaf son. Mcilroy says this film was used to teach the students and the public about reversed perspectives, looking at what the deaf son wanted in comparison to what the dad, who could hear, wanted.


Other movies shown during the week on Education Campus included Beyond Silence, Hear and Now, Sweet Nothing in my Ear and Children of a Lesser God.