27 May 2024

Breaking The Silence To Empower Deaf Learners For Higher Education

Submitted by: MyPressportal Team

Edward van Niekerk, a senior lecturer at Belgium Campus iTversity

Johannesburg 27 May 2024 The education of Deaf learners has long been veiled in silence - enforced not by nature, but by humanity itself. The history of prejudice against Deaf learners extends to the late 1980s, when sign language was finally permitted within Deaf schools.

A ban on sign language had been enforced since the 1880 World Conference on Education for the Deaf in Milan—a decision made without the presence or input of deaf individuals themselves. This decision was voluntary, but South Africa was one of the many countries to adopt it.

The journey towards inclusive education for Deaf learners is far from over. Sadly, the eventual ending of this linguistic apartheid in the 1980s did not bring about the improvement one might have expected due to an educational landscape constrained by a mistaken belief that deaf learners were capable only of so much.

My inspiration to lead in this field was prompted by the experience of my own parents, both deaf, where even a gesture for salt at the lunch table was regarded as a punishable offense. The absurdity of this restriction is manifest.

The collaborative efforts between tertiary education institutions and schools for the deaf paint a complex picture of support and challenges. While public universities typically offer sign language interpreter services through their disability units, direct partnerships with schools for the Deaf are rare.

The stark reality of the situation becomes evident when examining the academic outcomes of deaf learners, whereby when receiving applications from students from schools for the deaf, the average results for subjects like English and mathematics are particularly low. Many schools only teach the deaf math literacy, leaving them ill-prepared for the academic rigours of higher education. This disparity is further exacerbated by the lack of early intervention and language acquisition support, as deafness is often identified later in life, hindering language development.

Preparing Deaf students for higher education remains a multifaceted challenge, with schools adopting varying approaches to grades 10, 11, and 12. While some schools offer flexibility, such as extending grade 12 over two years or providing vocational streams, the predominant focus leans towards steering them to vocational training. This trend reflects a systemic belief that Deaf students may struggle academically and are therefore steered towards vocational pathways, albeit there is nothing inherently wrong in pursuing trades. However, this perception perpetuates a cycle of low self-esteem, limiting the educational aspirations of deaf learners.

In essence, the journey towards empowering Deaf learners for higher education demands a shift in perspective—one of the fundamental issues lies in the scarcity of teachers who possess the dual expertise of fluency in sign language and the ability to effectively convey advanced concepts to Deaf learners. The disparity between the linguistic proficiency of students and their teachers creates a significant barrier to learning, particularly in technical and complex subjects like science and maths.

The principal of St. Vincent School for the Deaf, Ingrid Parkin has previously highlighted the linguistic dynamic that exists within deaf education. Deaf students often find themselves in a situation where they possess a better grasp of sign language than their teachers yet must navigate the complexities of academic content delivery.

Belgium Campus iTversity offers a unique approach to addressing these challenges, providing specialised support for Deaf students since 2015. By collaborating with the National Institute for the Deaf, we have tailored our programmes to meet the needs of deaf learners, recognising the importance of additional time and specialised instruction in areas requiring critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Sign language interpreters are provided in class, and the campus has appointed Deaf lecturers who bring first-hand experience and expertise to the educational environment.

By engaging deaf students in the creation of specialised resources, such as a library of sign language terminology, we foster a learning environment that recognises that certain adjustments benefit all students and accommodates diverse learning styles.

For instance, the introduction of bridging programmes aims to address foundational skills gaps, providing a pathway for deaf students to access certificate programmes and beyond. Currently, we do not have a bridging programme but would like to research the viability of one. By advocating for the accreditation of these bridging courses, Belgium Campus iTversity seeks to legitimise and institutionalise support structures that empower deaf learners to succeed in higher education.

In addition to sign language interpreters, professional note-taking, when implemented can considerably facilitate effective communication and learning as the Deaf are themselves unable to do so while following the sign language interpreter.

These tools address systemic obstacles within schools for the Deaf. While dreams of inclusive higher education are noble, tangible progress begins with addressing the root causes of inequality within educational institutions. Equally important is corporate sponsorships for Deaf students to pursue teaching careers. By fostering a greater presence of Deaf educators within schools for the deaf, the community can benefit from increased linguistic fluency and cultural understanding, ultimately enhancing the educational experiences and opportunities for Deaf learners.

Published in Science and Education