‘Teaching Deaf children is a calling, it needs passion and dedication’

A teacher sitting at the front of her class

 Sixty-three-year-old Maria Nemakonde is just two years away from retirement, something she’s not quite looking forward to. 

Nemakonde is a teacher at a school for children with special needs in Shayandima, outside Thohoyandou in Limpopo. And she’s worried about what will become of her learners once she leaves. 

While not Deaf herself, Nemakonde teaches Grade R learners who are Deaf at Tshilidzini Special School. This is very far removed from where she started. 

The mother of four, started working as a teacher at Tshilidzini in 1992, teaching woodwork. 

“I started noticing that most of the Deaf learners, especially those who had just started school, had difficulties communicating,” says Nemakonde.

Wanting to bridge this learning and communication gap, Nemakonde started learning Sign Language on her own. She took classes and enrolled for a learning course on South African Sign Language (SASL). 

In 2005 she started teaching the Deaf learners at the school. Today, almost two decades later, she’s taught hundreds of children how to read and write using Sign Language. 

On the eve of her retirement one question is at the top of Nemakonde’s mind: who will take her place? 

Lack of continuity

“Over the years teaching Deaf learners I’ve seen that most teachers are not adequately trained to properly teach and communicate using SASL,” says Nemakonde.

She says that this becomes a challenge, especially when It comes to teaching primary learners who do not have any prior knowledge of SASL. 

Robyn Beere is a deputy director of Equal Education Law Centre, an education and research advocacy organisation. She says that Deaf children need to be taught in SASL.

“SASL is the equivalent of their home language. When they are not taught in SASL, then learning and communication is compromised and language acquisition is delayed,” says Beere.

Nemakonde says that for Deaf learners to have a better understanding and better educational outcomes, their teachers must have vast knowledge of the SASL. “Something which I feel like we are still behind as a country, especially in rural areas like Vhembe,” says Nemakonde.

Nemakonde is not the only one concerned about the inability of some teachers employed in Deaf schools to communicate and teach using SASL.

Mosala Makhetha, who is Deaf himself, is a programme manager at the advocacy organisation, the South African National Deaf Association (SANDA). He says the quality of education they receive is a major problem faced by Deaf learners. 

“You will find that hearing and (academically) highly qualified teachers of Deaf learners lack knowledge of SASL. This results in Deaf learners teaching the new teachers how to communicate using SASL. Most of us, myself included, went through this painful experience of not getting proper education because of this,” says Makhetha.

According to the Centre for Deaf Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, most of the teachers who work at deaf schools are not Deaf themselves. It is not compulsory that they must have qualifications in SASL before they are employed to teach deaf learners. Some schools have teacher assistants who are Deaf, hard of hearing, or even  hearing people who are fluent in SASL.  

Beere says that teachers in Deaf school should be qualified to teach in SASL and their SASL level of proficiency should be good enough to do so.

“If one thinks of SASL as any other language it is important for the teacher to be able to effectively communicate in the language of instruction. If not, it leads to confusion and poor teaching of important learning concepts,” says Beere.

South Africa has an estimate of 4 million Deaf and hard of hearing people. The country has 43 schools which cater for the educational needs of Deaf children. This number includes both private and public schools as well as primary and secondary schools. These schools are concentrated in Gauteng and the Western Cape. 

And most of them only offer primary level education.

Nemakonde has seen many of her learners at Tshilidzini complete Grade seven and move on to other special schools to continue their education. But some of her former learners still come back to her for help with their school work.

Life after basic education 

Makhetha is concerned about the lack of educational support for Deaf people when they complete their secondary education.

“What happens to Deaf children post-school? Is there further education that caters for Deaf children? Government should do more than be inclusive. Inclusive education means that Deaf children should go to mainstream higher education, but there are no full-time SASL interpreters at colleges,” explains Makhetha.

Makhetha tells Health-e News, that the potential solution to educational challenges faced by Deaf learners is to have properly trained teachers, who are fluent in SASL, in all Deaf schools and tertiary institutions in South Africa.

“Some of the teachers who are already employed within Deaf schools, but cannot communicate in proper SASL should be given an ultimatum to attend SASL classes to improve,” says Makhetha. 

Uncertain future

Though she is uncertain about her immediate future and that of her learners, Nemakonde says that she wishes to see more teachers being trained to be fluent in SASL. She is even prepared to help if needed – even in her retirement years.

“To be honest the joy I get from seeing my learners begin to learn how to read, write and to also communicate fluently using SASL is out of this world. It is like hearing your child utter their first words. I am going to miss each and every moment I shared with them. It’s been a long and wonderful journey,” says Nemakonde.-Health-e News.


  • Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

    Ndivhuwo Mukwevho is citizen journalist who is based in the Vhembe District of Limpopo province. He joined OurHealth in 2015 and his interests lie in investigative journalism and reporting the untold stories of disadvantaged rural communities. Ndivhuwo holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media Studies from the University of Venda and he is currently a registered student with UNISA.

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