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signlanguage-article20 September 2013 – Nearly two months ago, at the beginning of August, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced a few major curriculum changes.

The media focused on news that the department would pilot African languages in 10 schools per district in 2014. Less widely reported were her comments on sign language, the principal means of communication for deaf people.

After President Jacob Zuma's call in 2012 to have sign language declared an official language, Motshekga said, she commissioned a curriculum management team to draw up a sign language curriculum. After meeting the ministerial task team on South African Sign Language (SASL), she said: "I have committed to discuss with education MECs that the sign language curriculum be offered as a home language from 2014."

That was on 6 August. A month later, on 5 September, she published a call for comments on the Draft Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements for South African Sign Language, Grades R to 12 in the Government Gazette and on the department website.

Stakeholder bodies and members of the public have been asked to comment on the draft documents, which are available online as well as from the Curriculum Policy, Support and Monitoring office in the Department of Basic Education in Pretoria, by 30 September 2013.

The news could not have come at a better time: September is Deaf Awareness Month, and the theme for this year is Equality for Deaf People. According to Sign Language Education and Development (Sled), SASL is probably the country's oldest indigenous language. It is also the most natural language for a deaf child and has become widely recognised. Sled, a non-profit organisation working to provide deaf children with an equal and democratic right to literacy, learning and access to information, has an SASL curriculum for deaf children.

Inclusive education

Instituting an SASL curriculum fits right in with the government's strategy of inclusive education. It says that such a system "will facilitate the inclusion of vulnerable learners and reduce the barriers to learning, through targeted support structures and mechanisms that will improve the retention of learners in the education system, particularly learners who are prone to dropping out".

The department promotes inclusive education because:

  • It acknowledges that all children can learn;
  • It enables education structures, systems and methodologies to meet the needs of all children;
  • It can contribute to the quality of education for all;
  • It enables children with disabilities to stay with their families and communities;
  • It is part of a wider strategy to promote an inclusive society; and
  • It is consistent with the key principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Hubs of inclusive technology

Specific systems for inclusive education for various disabilities have been installed, and training has been done, at the Vodacom ICT Resource Centres. The centres have software and hardware for persons with disabilities, learning and special needs. The technology caters to a wide range of disabilities, from low vision and blindness, to learning disabilities, to severe physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy. Educators and specialists working with special needs pupils are able to access this technology at the centres, and use the centres to assess what technology is appropriate to help each pupil.

In addition to the regular ICT training, the centres are also being used to train teachers, learning support teachers and district officials involved in inclusive education, as well as pupils with special learning needs.

Western Cape successes

Shortly after Motshekga's announcement, on 10 September Western Cape education MEC Donald Grant reported on the successes his province had notched up in promoting sign language education. "I am pleased that the Western Cape government has taken the lead in promoting the use of sign language, particularly in our schools, and working towards South African Sign Language becoming part of the National Curriculum Statement, right up to Grade 12," he said.

In 2010, Premier Helen Zille appointed a task team to investigate education at special needs schools accommodating deaf and hard-of-hearing pupils. It made specific recommendations for improving the quality of teaching and learning in the schools, one of which was to introduce SASL as a Language of Learning and Teaching (LOLT) in the classroom. It also recommended establishing SASL as a subject in schools for the deaf.

A draft SASL curriculum was also being developed by the provincial department, which seconded a principal from the Free State to give input. That year a plan was provided for piloting an SASL curriculum. The following year, a pilot project to test the draft curriculum and to introduce SASL as home language was initiated at De la Bat School for the Deaf in Worcester.

"The pilot, the first of its kind in South Africa, initially targeted the Foundation Phase, but was then expanded in 2012 to the Intermediate Phase and the Senior Phase in 2013. The SASL curriculum was fully implemented in grades R to six and partially implemented in grades seven to 12 at the school," Grant said.

Pilot expanded

Given the success of the pilot, the programme was expanded to four other schools for the deaf this year – Noluthando, Dominican, Wittebome, Mary Kihn, and Nuwe Hoop – where the SASL curriculum is being implemented in grades R to three.

Grant said all teachers at these schools had been trained to teach using SASL as an LOLT, as had deaf assistants. SASL had been standardised in all deaf schools in Western Cape. The pilot is due to end at the end of this month, with the final report to be submitted to the National Department of Basic Education in October 2013.

The MEC also spoken about the province's role in the national programme, saying the draft curriculum for grades R to 12 had been developed by the national department in consultation with the Western Cape Task Team, which is stationed at De la Bat. De la Bat is testing the new SASL CAPS curriculum in grades one to three and nine and is giving feedback to the national department. The five schools for deaf pupils in Western Cape were also preparing for the introduction of SASL as a home language. Further training of teachers will take place this month and in October 2013.

For a deaf child, receiving a home language education means having the option of being educated in sign language. Until now, deaf children have not been able to be taught in sign language as an LOLT or as a subject.

The new curriculum is well in line with the Constitution. In Chapter 1 (Founding Provisions), Section 6 (5), it says that the Pan South African Language Board must "promote, and create conditions, for the development and use of" sign language – a stipulation which is finally being realised.

Comments on the Department of Basic Education's Draft Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements for South African Sign Language, Grades R to 12 can be sent or delivered to: The Acting Deputy Director-General: Curriculum Policy, Support and Monitoring, Department of Basic Education for attention: Dr M Simelane on fax 012 323 0069 or email: simelane.m@dbe.gov.za.

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