3 December 2021: International Day of Persons with Disabilities – My Right My Language

By Atiyah Asmal

The annual observance of the International Day of Disabled Persons was proclaimed in 1992, by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 47/3. The observance of the Day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.  International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD) is held on 3 December each year.

Language/linguistic rights are fundamentally linked to human rights, South Africa is a rainbow nation that bursts with so many cultures and languages that should receive equal dignity and status.

I come from a big Deaf family. My parents did not receive education like we did. Seeing as I was a CODA (children of Deaf Adults), I had to interpret at various settings for my parents such as at shops, or bank. This meant I had to heavily rely on lipreading to get the message across to my parents. At this point, both my parents did not have access to SASL interpreters and had very limited knowledge on how to work with interpreters.

Many years ago, I attended a WFD (World Deaf Federation) conference in which I was exposed to SASL Interpreters for the very first time in my life. The conference was highly informative and empowering as I had come to learn about Deaf and Sign language rights. It was then when I became an active Deaf advocate.  Subsequent to the conference, I was eager to share my knowledge with my parents, however they could not understand me as they used gestures and not Sign Language to communicate. As a result, I became a DI (Deaf Interpreter) for parents.

Parents believed that Deaf people need to fit into the hearing world and not vice versa. As a third-generation Deaf person, I realised how so little has changed in regards to empowerment of Deaf people. This needs to stop. Deaf people should be included and accommodated in the mainstream. Our needs should be prioritised and not thrown at the back burner. I fail to relate to the term ‘disability’ as it is a generic term for different disabilities. It is a summarising term which indicates for all disabilities and yet people living with disabilities have different needs. As a Deaf individual, my needs differ to that of a blind person or one that uses a wheelchair. As such the term carries a different meaning for me.

Deaf people simply need access to subtitles/ closed captioning, Sign Language Interpreters. In a nutshell our needs are communication access. This is completely different to the needs of blind people. So how can we all be squashed into one identity?

WE need to create awareness around the needs of Deaf people in particular as many assume all disabilities are the same and therefore require the same access.

SASL is a rich language with its own linguistic properties. South Africa is well on its way to make Sign Language an official language. More people need to be sensitised on Sign Language and Deaf culture respectively. SASL is not a primitive form of a language. It contains its own grammatical structure and syntax. It is fully harmonised and rich in terms of linguistic properties.  Sign language allows Deaf people to communicate infinite ideas in a clear and cohesive manner

SASL is a primary language for the Deaf community, but there are hearing people who communicate through Sign language such as those with Deaf children, friends and family. SASL is unique in that it is a visual, three-dimensional language. It is not dependant on any spoken language; it is complete in its own right.

South African Sign Language is also officially recognised as a home language in schools. Since 2015 it has been offered as a subject from preschool until the final year of high school. This is important as it facilitates the deaf child’s equal and democratic right to literacy and learning through their home language.

PanSALB, an organisation established to promote multilingualism, launched the South African Sign Language charter, which seeks to provide recognition of Sign language for Deaf South Africans and in extension the general public. The charter was conceptualised to address issues that relates to ‘communication, access to information, reasonable accommodation and social justice’ for Deaf people.

The country has made great strides when it comes to the use of Sign language as interpreting services is becoming more accessible on national television as well as on a community level. DeafSA has been at the forefront in advocating for SASL to be an official language after making submissions to parliament and the constitutional review committee which was founded in 2007. In 2017, for example, the Constitutional Review Committee of Parliament recommended that South African Sign Language be added as the country’s 12th official language. This is yet to be made official. However, we believe it was a significant step towards a process of amending the country’s Constitution to make it a reality.

South Africa is well on its way to ensuring that Deaf people and Sign language enjoy the same recognition and status as spoken languages before the constitution.

About Author:

Atiyah Asmal is a member of the Gauteng Provincial Language Committee for South African Sign Language, a Pan South African Language Board structure. She holds a master’s degree in South African Sign Language Linguistics. She is a SASL Project Manager for MCK Special School with GED and has served in various portfolios as a sign language trainer. She is a certified assessor as well as a moderator for SASL and in her spare time she enjoys writing and performing SASL poetry.



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