A world where deaf people everywhere can sign anywhere

Deaf and hard of hearing people are at greater risk of marginalisation because of economic, environmental and institutional discrimination which exclude them from socio-economic activities.

IMAGINE this; a deaf woman walks into a hospital and she is visibly pregnant. She makes her way to the reception where she is greeted by a friendly nurse. The nurse says her greetings out loud while also signing the words. The pregnant woman, let’s call her Mrs Kaya, smiles as she signs back. Mrs Kaya is able to get the help she needs.

Her baby is developing perfectly and everything is good. Is that not a wonderful scene to imagine? Unfortunately, this does not happen in real life. In a real life scenario, it is more likely that deaf women like Mrs Kaya are not able to communicate effectively with the health workers in a hospital setting. The theme of the 2023 International Day of the Deaf is, A World Where Deaf People Everywhere Can Sign Anywhere, recognises that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion, and the sustainable development goals focus on leaving no one behind.

An open and just society in Zimbabwe is only possible if the linguistic and health rights of the deaf people are prioritised. Deafness is widely acknowledged as a serious impairment that impedes an individual’s access to education, employment, and general social integration.

The World Health Organisation estimated that 4,5% of the populations in developing countries have disabling hearing impairment. Access to information for people who are deaf has been a huge perennial problem which has thwarted the majority of people with hearing impairments from actualising their potential and to participate in socio-economic development of the nation.

Deaf and hard of hearing people are at greater risk of marginalisation because of economic, environmental and institutional discrimination which exclude them from socio-economic activities.

Kim et al (2018), in a ground-breaking research in the United Kingdom titled Deaf People and Economic Well-Being: Findings From the Life Opportunities Survey highlights that deaf and hard of hearing people typically leave school with fewer qualifications than hearing people and are less likely to further their studies. If they are fortunate enough to get a formal job, they are more likely to find themselves in positions where they are not promoted.

To exacerbate their plight, the above research further reveals that, even among those who are employed, more than half of deaf and hard of hearing people (55%) are reported as feeling socially isolated at work. Approximately one in four are reported as being harassed in their workplaces, making it difficult for them to maintain paid work and remain economically independent.

Cumulatively, all these factors provide a fertile ground for deaf people in Zimbabwe as in many other countries to turn to the streets for their livelihoods. Consequently, the deaf and hard of hearing people experience high rates of poverty and economic exclusion.

In navigating the strategies for working out the deaf people out of their self-created street heavens, it is pertinent, albeit compendiously, to look at the position of international law on deaf people’s empowerment, the same analyses will follow for Zimbabwe’s domestic law.

The justification for reviewing the same being, the medical transplant strategy (burrowed from the medical field) problem solving by elimination wherein the paper assesses whether the empowerment gap for the deaf is as a result of inadequate or non-existent, legal frameworks.

It is key to mention at this stage that this article will not confine itself only to the analyses of legal provisions but will look at the complex web that directly and or indirectly economically disempowers the deaf, consequently driving them to the streets as the sole source for livelihoods. Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) provides in clear and unmistakable terms as follows: “the right of persons with disabilities to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families”.

Kim (2018) correctly explain that the right to an “adequate standard of living” for all has been long been established in international human rights law ever since the explication in Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 and remains at the fore of human rights. Yet, detailed guidance on what Article 28 of the CRPD means for policy and practice is unclear.

Section 83 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe imposes an obligation on the State to ensure that people with disabilities realise their full mental and physical capabilities. Section 83(a) states that, “The State must take appropriate measures, within the limits of the resources available to it, to ensure that persons with disabilities realise their full mental and physical potential, including measures — to enable them to become self-reliant”.

The Education Act of Zimbabwe, 1987 [Chapter 25:04] has clear provisions for special education of children living with deafness. One wonders how, on the background of such solid and impressive international and domestic law, deaf people end up as vendors on the streets of Harare and not occupying positions of authority in higher offices both in government and in the private sector.

In Zimbabwe, the development blueprint is hinged on National Development Strategy 1, and the cornerstone of that blueprint is on inclusive development for all, including the previously marginalised group, which has translated to the head of State’s mantra “leaving no-one and no place behind”.

One is tempted to extend the mantra by adding the following “leaving no one except the deaf” when a holistic approach and analyses of the situation obtaining on the ground is concerned. It is a public secret that the true measure of a country’s development lies in how able it is to cater for its most vulnerable and marginalised people and deaf people fall under this category.

In an article titled Language as a Tool for Economic Development: Perspectives of the Deaf, Matende and Hlatyawo (2020) argued that the potential that can be utilised for development lies untapped in the deaf community due to constraints of language.

People living with deafness ekeing a living through vending, largely airtime vending, on the streets of Harare have critical questions which begs for answers: “How can we participate and contribute to the National Development Strategy 1 when it’s only in English language? How can we be part and parcel of something crafted in a language that we are not familiar with, hence their extension of the presidential mantra “leaving no place and no one except the deaf” in development. Their argument find merit drawing examples from other nations like China, Japan and others, wherein empirical evidence clearly shows that the role of language in economic development cannot be underestimated.

The University of Zimbabwe has walked the talk by introducing sign language as a university-wide course as a way of promoting sign language use among the academia, but the question still remains: Is Sign Language being taught by the deaf. The answer is certainly not in the affirmative, which elicits the second question that: Are all deaf people working in the streets not capable to teach elementary sign language.

Again the correct answer to this inquiry is not in the affirmative. It talks to structural inequalities that talk to overemphasis on professional and academic qualifications when it comes to employment in the formal sector.

Local, regional and international research has shown that promotion of entrepreneurship among the deaf is quite a significant strategy for taking the deaf people out of the streets. In Zimbabwe, there is a full-fledged Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises ministry, which has several programmes to support SMEs and its parastatals SMEDCO [Small to Medium Enterprises Development Corporation].

However, what is disproportionately sickening is that their programmes are conducted via road and radio shows, which are all audio platforms and also they do not have sign language interpreters in their various offices across the country. The highest office in the country where funding assistance should be accessed by all Zimbabweans has no specific programme to reach the disadvantaged group of deaf people.

It is worth noting that with the right support, deaf persons can become great entrepreneurs of note. Kim et al (2018) offers an insight and gives practical examples of deaf people who have made it in the field of entrepreneurship. These include Mark Burke, Jon Cetrano, and Sam Costner, the three deaf founders and owners of Streetcar 82 Brewery in Hyattsville, Maryland, wherein all the staff are deaf and use American Sign Language. The above success stories in other countries gives a ray of hope, it serves to illustrate that getting the deaf out of the streets of Zimbabwe is very much doable.

The inescapable conclusion from the foregoing established research facts is that it is insufficient to have a constitution that recognises the deaf as a marginalised group and Sign language as an official language. The absence of the implementation of programmes that promote and advance the use of Sign language renders useless, the constitutional right that all officially recognised languages be treated equally. Thus, the State, private players and organisations for the deaf should advocate for a society with equal access to information and opportunities to all. The State must uphold its duty to create conditions for the development and advancement of sign language which directly translates to the empowerment of deaf people and consequently provides a safe exit from eking a livelihood in the streets.

  • Matende is a lecturer in the Department of Languages, Literature and Culture at the University of Zimbabwe. He teaches a wide range of linguistic courses covering Sign Language in Zimbabwe and Jasi is a Nursing Science student at the University of Zimbabwe.

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