More than two-thirds of deaf South Africans are sitting at home unemployed and unable to make a living. Organisations supporting these people have come out and asked for more backing in the hope of turning these figures around.

In 2018, the Deaf Federation of SA revealed that 70% don’t have jobs. Activist Kamohelo Teele is doing his best to change this. 

The 29-year-old is currently serving as the National Spokesperson for the South African Deaf Youth Development Project (SADYDP). Founded in 2013, the organisation focuses on two core issues: unemployment and an education system that is unable to accommodate the deaf community. 

Inadequate representation

Teele said that the deaf are often forgotten in conversations about employment because they don’t have enough representation. 

“The deaf community should be recognised as employable in government and in the private sector. They have the necessary skills and talent to conduct a variety of different tasks when given the chance to do so,” he said.

Teele emphasised that deaf people should not only be in junior positions. Those that have their masters, honours, or doctorates should be considered for higher positions.

The dinner table syndrome

Dirk Venter is the founding member of DEAF Friendly – an evangelist organisation that aims to serve and enable the deaf. He is a child of deaf parents and has been rendering sign language interpreting services for over 20 years. 

His passion was sparked as a young boy while attending church. They needed an interpreter and Venter put his hand up. He said this made him realise that he wanted to share God’s gospel with deaf people.

The high unemployment rate for deaf people reflects employers’ tendency to avoid them. Venter referred to this as the “dinner table syndrome.”

“Everybody around the dinner table is speaking to each other but the deaf person isn’t part of the conversation. They assume that when we are joking, we are making fun of them. Or, when we are pointing or making hand gestures, they think we are referring to them in a negative way. This, unfortunately, carries over to the workplace where deaf people often feel excluded.  It creates a huge sense of loneliness which leads to frustration and even further misunderstanding,” said Venter. 

He added: “Employers don’t know how to work with this. They aren’t informed on the lifestyles and capabilities of the deaf and therefore don’t make room for them.  Instead, they are avoided. Decisions are made for them and about them, in their presence.”

A need for skills development and education

The high unemployment has led to increased poverty and dependence on the disability grant for many deaf people.

“There is no inclusivity when it comes to the education system. The majority of deaf children come from special schools where they are taught by teachers who do not know sign language. Once these learners matriculate, they do not know how to survive because the system cannot protect them,” said Teele.

He also cites the lack of parental involvement and a lack of social integration as reasons why deaf people are sidelined.

The World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) confirmed that South African Sign Language (SASL) is still not considered as a school subject, and only 14% of teachers can sign fluently.

“The majority don’t have an education due to the lack of an education system that is able to respond to the challenges deaf children have. Proper development skills and training within working-class communities are needed. This will help integrate deaf individuals because people will be able to communicate with them,” Teele added. 

Starting early

The South African National Deaf Association (SANDA) suggests that children as young as four, start receiving deaf education. They will have an easier time communicating with both hearing and non-hearing members of the community. Deaf education often focuses on interaction with others as well as how to navigate in a society not designed for them. 

This is why it is so important to have deaf teachers and especially deaf principals who can provide quality education.

White paper on disability rights

Teele said that huge steps will be taken if the White Paper on Disability rights document is implemented. 

“This document speaks to the challenges and aspirations of people living with disabilities. It includes questions of access, basic and higher education, employment, and integration into the workplace. The strategic pillars speak to the government and the private sector. This document states that there should be 7% disability representation in the workplace,” he said.

He is confident that the White Paper, adopted by the cabinet in 2015, will help support and develop the deaf.

Dispelling common myths

Mosala Makhetha, 49, from Pretoria, contracted bacterial meningitis at the age of nine. It left him with hearing loss several months after his recovery in hospital. A severely damaged auditory nerve caused deafness in both ears.   

Makhetha is a Program Manager at SANDA and said discrimination and ignorance are nothing new to him. SANDA is an advocacy and lobbying organisation that raises awareness, promotes non-discrimination, and offers advice. It also provides SASL interpreter services and physical and emotional support.

Makhetha shared some of the common myths holding deaf people back.

Myth: People who are deaf are “deaf and dumb” or “deaf and mute”

Fact: The inability to hear does not affect either intelligence or the physical ability to produce sounds. Deafness does not make people dumb in the sense of being either stupid or mute. Makhetha explained that some deaf people speak very well and clearly. Others choose not to use their voice if they think that they are difficult to understand. He said that most deaf people do have the physical ability to speak, and therefore, they are not mute.

Myth: The inability to hear sound in the workplace 

Fact: People who are deaf can hear with their eyes. Makhetha said that their other senses are heightened like eyesight. He explained that when driving a vehicle, people expect you to hear hooting, but you can hear by seeing what is in front of you. 

“Deaf people can drive – from long carrier trucks to small delivery vehicles.”

Myth: Deaf people are less intelligent

Fact: Hearing ability is unrelated to intelligence. Makhetha attributed this myth to the lack of knowledge about deafness. However, he acknowledged the limited educational and occupational opportunities which can result in a lack of development. 

Makhetha said that myths are unfounded and contribute to the perception of people who are deaf as being “too disabled” to work for certain companies. 

“I once applied for an HR manager job and I made the shortlist. They warned me that the job required someone who can handle the telephone, discuss employee-related confidential matters, and attend union or dispute-related meetings. However, they thought this was too much for me and in the end, I didn’t get the job,” he explained. 

More than just pickers and packers

Venter said that a common assumption in the workplace is that deaf people can only work with their hands.

“Companies say that they employ deaf people, but you don’t see them because they work as pickers or packers. It’s not fair to keep a person in one position in a retail shop for years because they can’t hear,” said Venter.

Makhetha added that different career paths can become available if the work space and people are accommodating.

“We can communicate well with anyone using basic SASL, email, and by taking notes. Communication is important. So, finding new ways to make sure everyone understands one another means that everyone is working together.”

Advice when employing a deaf person

Venter noted that it is important to respect the concerns that employers may have. 

“The lack of information is not really their fault but it is their responsibility to educate themselves. Wondering how to give deaf people instructions is a valid concern. Similarly, it’s also challenging for deaf employees who can’t pick up a phone immediately. But the technology is there to use as a tool to communicate,” said Venter. 

He said the disregard for a person who is deaf is the most common mistake in his experience as an interpreter.

“When you are talking to a deaf person and they are standing with their interpreter, continue talking with the deaf person. People tend to focus on me. Tell the deaf person himself, and I’ll interpret as we go along,” he explained.

Guidelines for employers

Venter shared advice for employers and co-workers when interacting with someone who can’t hear:

  1. Look at the deaf when you speak to them. 
  2. Don’t speak behind a deaf person’s back – always make eye contact. 
  3. You’re welcome to reach out to any organisation to assist with drawing up a budget for interpreters, visual aid, or other equipment you may need.
  4. Be mindful of how you hand out assignments.
  5. Do not assume that all deaf people can read English. 
  6. Do not assume that they all speak the same sign language.
  7. Avoid making decisions on their behalf while feeling the need not to include them. 

“Taking the time to get to know the culture of the deaf and how they naturally communicate will allow for a constructive work relationship to develop,” said Venter. – Health-e News