Debate On IFP Motion On Sign Language by Hon M B Gwala MPL

Honourable Speaker

The Inkatha Freedom Party has always held the view that being deaf or having any other physical impediment must never be a barrier to self-actualisation.

Every South African citizen must be accorded equal opportunities at all levels of economic and social life. Being disadvantaged on the grounds of one’s physical status is unconstitutional and an affront on human dignity.

Internationally great emphasis is placed on sign language. Articles 9 and 21 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities give access to communication and information to deaf and hard-of-hearing persons through the recognition of sign language in addition to the availability of technology to facilitate such access. This Convention was adopted on 13 December 2006 and entered into force on 03 May 2008.

As the IFP we believe strongly that our discourse around the issue of sign language should not only focus on those who are deaf. The discourse must now move to include all of us who are greatly disadvantaged because we cannot communicate effectively with those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

It is most appropriate that the IFP motion is being debated in September which is Deaf Awareness month. At the outset I must state that the IFP commends the work being done by the Sign Language Education and Development organisation and supports its efforts to have sign language taught at schools.

We are of the view that no member of the public should be at a disadvantage as a result of a physical impediment that hinders communication. In the event of a tragedy, a deaf person’s life could be saved if rescue workers could understand basic sign language. It is for this reason, among many others, that we feel that basic sign language tuition must be given to all state employees, emergency services personnel and community representatives who interact with the community at large.

Bringing this motion for debate is not an idea that the IFP has come up with today or even this year. In December 2014, the IFP issued a statement requesting that sign language be taught to all members of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature and the Legislature staff. As public representatives we interact with all sectors of the population and we need to understand their needs. Such interaction is not possible if we are unable to communicate to people with hearing impediments what we as government are saying to them.

The IFP is mindful that there are over 1.5 million South Africans who are deaf or hard of hearing and they cannot be marginalised because of this. As public servants we should not be satisfied with just receiving a cross next to our party’s name on the ballot paper come election time. We need to serve all of our people and respond effectively to the challenges faced by those who are deaf.

People who cannot speak and /or hear experience great difficulty when they want to communicate their issues with members of the legislature. We often attend public hearings and community interaction sessions where people with hearing impediments want to engage us but cannot do so effectively because we cannot communicate with them in a language that they understand. Those community members therefore feel that they are being marginalised. They feel that it would be of no use trying to explain their concerns because, we as Members of the Legislature will not understand them and therefore not take them seriously. We must feel disadvantaged knowing that we are supposed to be serving all the people of KZN and we cannot do that because we are not capacitated to communicate and understand the challenges faced by people who are deaf.

We should not only be relying on sign language interpreters especially after the fiasco at the funeral of late President Mandela. It must be extremely traumatic for a deaf rape victim who has to explain in a court of law the circumstances surrounding her ordeal and be able to understand what her attacker’s defence is saying.

In terms of the constitution of our country all citizens must be treated equally and must have equal access to services. As members of the legislature we must be empowered in order to be of service to our people. The doors of communication must be open so that those who cannot hear can understand their rights and know what is being communicated to them. Therefore, we call for basic sign language courses to be made available to all personnel who provide essential services such as the police, paramedics and health care personnel.

While I understand that there are financial constraints, we cannot deny people who are deaf their rights as enshrined in the constitution of our country.

This training programme must adopt a phased-in approach that will first train those who are in direct contact with the public. Funds must be made available from the various departmental budgets because this is essential if government is serious about taking services closer to the people. All citizens in our country must have access to services and therefore they must be able to communicate with officials of government and providers of essential services. Even councillors must be able to communicate with all the citizens that they represent. No citizens must be marginalised just because they have some impairment. This programme must be rolled out to different parts of the province where officials will be taught aspects of sign language. This will ensure that no one is being disadvantaged whenever they need government or other essential services.

Just as the South African Bible Society has ensured that there are Bibles in braille to cater for those who are blind, for which we are grateful, we must ensure that as government we cater for the needs of the deaf.

We note that sign language is a universal form of communication used by citizens who have no other choice. It will be extremely useful for all members of the public to have at least a basic understanding of sign language. We would like to see the teaching of sign language becoming part of the primary school curriculum.

Research has shown that a large number of deaf children leave school without being able to read and write because they are unable to understand their teachers. It is therefore important that teachers who have deaf children in their classes, are also equipped with at least a basic knowledge of sign language.

If children start learning sign language from a young age, it will become a part of their knowledge base which will be very useful as they grow. We have asked for this issue to be debated in the KZN Legislature because we feel very strongly about it. As the IFP we were pleased when our motion received wide support in the House and is being debated today. We sincerely hope that after today’s debate, the teaching of sign language will be prioritised and the necessary resources will be made available to ensure that sign language is taught at our schools.

The IFP supports the call by the Chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal Blind and Deaf Society, former Constitutional Court Judge Justice Zak Yacoob for all businesses and government departments to have at least one staff member who is trained in sign language.

Many mistakes and delays can be avoided if officials at government institutions and other public facilities who interact with the public, are able to understand sign language.

The IFP was overjoyed on hearing recently that Parliament’s Constitutional Review Committee was preparing to present its findings to the National Assembly that SA Sign Language be recognised as the country’s 12th official language. The IFP fully supports this and urges the National Assembly not to delay with regard to this piece legislation.

The Inkatha Freedom Party will support any legislation that will enhance the lives of our people, especially those with disabilities.

I thank you

Honourable Speaker , I wish to thank all Members of the Legislature who participated in this important debate. I appreciate the role played by the MEC of Arts and Culture in trying to make sure that this programme runs smoothly. Your contribution is highly appreciated.

The IFP urges this Legislature to be the front-runner in promoting the teaching of sign language at our schools. We must take the lead and demonstrate that we care for all of our citizens. This Legislature must begin without delay to implement the training of key personnel and us as Members of this Legislature. Those of us who are able to hear and speak must be the ones who will break the chains that impede our fellow citizens who live in a soundless and isolated world due to no fault of theirs. It is up to us to speak out for them. We, as Members of this Legislature, are the ones who have the power to draft legislation. We must use those powers that have been entrusted to us to open the doors of communication.

This motion was not tabled to cause divisions or political mud-slinging in this House but the motion was presented to make us all work together to help those who experience difficulty to express themselves or hear what others are saying at any given moment.

Honourable BV Hlengwa of the ANC should not use this motion to score cheap political scoring because I don’t to expose his political nakedness.

We must be able to go out on oversight visits and community engagement sessions confident in the knowledge that we will be able to communicate with every citizen in our province and that they will understand us. No citizen must feel that they will not be able to communicate with us. No citizen must feel disadvantaged just because they cannot speak or cannot hear. No citizen must feel that as Members of this Legislature we engage with communities just to tick the box while we do not understand their concerns. No citizen must feel isolated just because they have an impediment.

Every citizen must know that the IFP cares about them and will take their issues seriously. The IFP will do everything it its power to ensure that sign language is taught to every child at school and to all essential service personnel.

I thank you, Honourable Speaker.