Vital link: Primrose Lawrence of Reuben Birin School visits Adolph Schauder Primary in Port Elizabeth on Monday to promote Deaf Awareness Week. She shows, from left, Tamilyn Arries, Traakirah Benjamin and Sheneigh Johnson how to sign ‘dog’. Picture: IVOR MARKMAN
Vital link: Primrose Lawrence of Reuben Birin School visits Adolph Schauder Primary in Port Elizabeth on Monday to promote Deaf Awareness Week. She shows, from left, Tamilyn Arries, Traakirah Benjamin and Sheneigh Johnson how to sign ‘dog’. Picture: IVOR MARKMAN

While children around the country were settling into school year 2018, the South African Human Rights Commission released a devastating report on the poor quality of education available to deaf people in South Africa.

The report details the disregard for the education and lives of deaf children. It is, sadly, an all too familiar story — I attended special schools for deaf people in two provinces.

The commission painfully documents "systemic" failures to comply with basic safety regulations, leading to three deaf girls being burned to death in a hostel in the North West in August 2015. There were 23 children injured when they jumped from the first floor of the hostel to escape the fire.

The doors to their hostel had been locked — as though the pupils were prisoners — apparently because of the absence of after-hours care. The report says that this was not the first such incident.

This incident should be understood as the consequence of a nationwide, system-wide and daily neglect of deaf children at schools.

I initially attended my community’s school in Ngqamakhwe in rural Eastern Cape, which offered no support for my disability. It became impossible to continue, so I moved to a special school in the Eastern Cape in 2007 from the start of my Grade 8 year.

I expected that I would receive more accommodation for my disability from trained staff at my school. But I was shocked that my classmates could not read with understanding or write grammatically correct sentences. This became easier to understand when I realised that up to six children had to share a textbook, making access to information virtually impossible. Though the school had computers, they were never used while I was there despite our many protests urging school management to allow us to learn computer skills and access the internet.

Making matters worse, teachers had very limited ability to communicate with children in South African Sign Language (SASL) — for most children at the school their only means of communication and interaction with the hearing world.

Many of the children had better sign language skills than our teachers and struggled to understand them at all. Inexplicably, teachers speak more and sign less — to this very day — at schools for deaf children.

Luckily, I had acquired general language ability before going to this special school. By the time I became deaf I understood and spoke isiXhosa, which helped with learning new languages such as SASL and English.

It was still difficult because I started learning SASL and English late, but my ability to lip read and my language-acquisition skills gained, learning isiXhosa as a child gave me some advantage over my classmates.

At many special schools, teachers are required to teach both blind and deaf children, who require completely different sets of specialised skills — such as reading braille or using SASL

The essential work of a school — teaching and learning — didn’t happen consistently. Most days we only attended class from 8am to 10.30am. After break finished at 11am, we usually just sat around or played until school finished at 2pm. On the rare occasions that we did have classes after break, they usually lasted only for about a hour.

Most of my classmates — who could not read or write in high school — had been subjected to this form of "education" since their first day of school.

We were also severely limited because we were offered only five subjects: life orientation, maths literacy, English, hospitality and business studies. This limited opportunities for further education significantly, and subjects such as science and maths were not offered despite our interest.

Hoping it would improve my education and opportunities, my mother found a place at a special school in Pretoria for my Grade 11 and 12 years. Again, to my surprise, this school, which appeared to be much better resourced, seemed to equip children less well academically than my Eastern Cape school, where teachers had better sign language skills.

At many special schools, teachers are required to teach both blind and deaf children, who require completely different sets of specialised skills — such as reading braille or using SASL.

I stayed in a hostel for all my years at special schools. In the senior boys’ hostel, we had 70-80 in the same dormitory with hardly any space between the beds. Studying in such conditions, with no desks or personal space, was nearly impossible.

Some pupils in the hostel were in higher grades (11-12) while others were in lower grades (4-6), even though we were all in the same age group. The workload and motivation to study was thus never the same among all the boys.

DeafSA, which works closely with schools and pupils to advocate for improvements to the conditions in schools, confirms that the conditions I faced persist today.

Odette Swift, director of deaf education at DeafSA, says that in 2015, there was only a 50% pass rate in Grade 12 at schools for the deaf. This declined in 2016 to 29% — well below the national averages.

These awful figures hide how unprepared deaf students like myself are for the university environment when we do qualify.

Though I take pride in this achievement, it is also an indictment of the education system that when I graduate from the University of Cape Town in 2018, I will be the first deaf law graduate in SA.

I strongly support DeafSA’s work to improve the quality of schools for deaf children in SA and its participation in the Right to Education for Children With Disabilities Alliance

 

While I am thankful that I attended a school for the deaf where I learned SASL and deaf culture, I am especially grateful that I started my schooling at a village school in my home town, Ngqamakhwe.

While the school was underresourced and had no textbooks or technology, in an area with no electricity or running water at the time, it is there that I learned the foundations of language.

It says something about the poor state of education for deaf children that I benefited so much from a school that would be considered in the mainstream education system to be in a state of crisis.

I strongly support DeafSA’s work to improve the quality of schools for deaf children in SA and its participation in the Right to Education for Children With Disabilities Alliance. The government must be compelled to respect its obligations in terms of the Constitution and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Given the sluggish progress the government has made in this regard, I fully support the alliance’s submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which will be made in Geneva this week. The government must accept that it has on its hands what the alliance and Human Rights Watch have described as a "crisis".

The South African Human Rights Commission’s report about the terrible loss of life in a locked hostel full of deaf children is a tragedy worth mourning. But it must be understood in the context of an education system that fails deaf children every day through neglect, low-quality education, unqualified teachers and inappropriate living environments.

We are not prisoners, we are children who want to learn. It is our right.

• Ningiza will graduate in 2018 from the University of Cape Town as SA’s first deaf law graduate. Significant contributions to this article were made by Swift, director of deaf education at DeafSA.

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