“My son was already three years old when we learned that he was Deaf,” fifty-seven-year-old Takalani Mutwanamba tells Health-e News.
“We had first realised that he couldn’t utter a word when he was about six months old, but we never thought that there would be any challenges. We also did not realise that he was unable to hear any sound.”
Mutwanamba’s son, Fhumulani is not alone. In South Africa it is estimated that around 6,000 children are born Deaf every year. Most are only diagnosed after they’ve reached the age of two. This is largely due to the lack of newborn hearing screening.
Mutwanamba was shocked and scared when he was told that his first born child is Deaf. The child would not be able to speak nor hear.
“The first thoughts that came to my mind were: how am I going to communicate with him; does this mean that I will never be able to hear his voice? It took a few weeks to accept the fact that my son is Deaf,” Mutwanamba recalls.
“But I came to terms with it and vowed to love and care for him no matter the situation.”
Mutwanamba and his wife were first-time parents at the time. They knew very little about children, and even less about Deafness. Communicating with their young son when he was still a child was the most challenging part of raising him.
“We used to learn new signs everytime time he came back from the boarding school. He used to teach us how to communicate with him. To make it easier for us, he would come back with printed materials demonstrating various signs. Even so, the learning task was not easy and we are still learning even today,” says Mutwanamba.
None of the schools in their village of Ngwenani outside Thohoyandou in Limpopo could accommodate a Deaf child. As a result Fhumulani spent most of his childhood away from home, at boarding schools.
Fhumulani is now a grown man, but communicating with his parents remains a challenge. Mutwanamba has never received any formal training on using South African Sign Language (SASL).
“I know some of the basics which I taught myself at home with the help of my son. I can also understand most of the things my son signs. But I wish I were fluent because there are a lot of things I can’t say to him such as discussing marriage and guiding him on what it means to be a family man,” says Mutwanamba.
“Luckily we are able to communicate through writing. But if I were fluent in SASL everything would be much easier.”
People close to the family suggested that the boy was bewitched and he should be taken to traditional healers or prophets for consultations.
“The doctor who diagnosed my son explained the condition fully and we trusted him. But as Africans, you know that we always have beliefs that if something is not going well or a person has a rare condition it is because they have been bewitched,” says Mutwanamba. “As a God-fearing man I refused to believe these claims and put my trust in God.”
Mutwanamba says most people in his village of Ngwenani and surrounding communities seem to have accepted his son’s condition. But there are some who continue to discriminate against him.
Stigma and discrimination are some of the major challenges Deaf people face on a daily basis.
Mosala Makhetha is a programme manager at the South African National Deaf Association (SANDA).
“Be it at public meetings, workplace, schools, universities and the general public. The type of discrimination varies from lack of providing the services of SASL interpreters as part of reasonable accommodation, not being hired ostensibly because of our disability, the list is long,” says Makhetha, who is also Deaf.
He says there’s not enough awareness about Deafness as some people remain ignorant about the condition, especially in rural areas.
“We are also not getting enough support from the government to address these issues,” says Makhetha.
Despite facing communication barriers, coupled with stigma and discrimination, Mutwanamba says that he is grateful that his son has grown to be a responsible young man.
Fhumulani is 34 and works as a SASL interpreter and a soccer coach at Setotolwane special school outside Polokwane, the same school where he completed his secondary education.
Taking the time to learn
Mutwanamba urges parents raising children who are Deaf to dedicate their time to learn the language their children use.
“At one stage I was offered an opportunity to learn Sign Language, but I couldn’t attend the lessons due to work commitments. I feel like if I had managed to attend those classes maybe now I might have been fluent in SASL and able to communicate with my son with ease,” he says.
Makhetha says that though Deaf people have learned to adjust to many situations, there will always be communication challenges. He agrees that it’s important for parents or guardians of Deaf children to learn SASL.
“Without communication, Deaf children end up being isolated and excluded from family discussions. Most Deaf children, myself included, grew up at boarding schools where we communicate in SASL all the time, and when we go home for holidays, we find that our families cannot communicate with us in the language that we understand,” says Makhetha.-Health-e News.