Tanzania’s deaf community celebrates significant progress in harmonizing sign language.
News27 September 2019
This week, the Institutions for Inclusive Development (I4ID), a development project co-funded by Irish Aid and DFID, joins other stakeholders across the country in marking the International Week of the Deaf. A diverse group of actors will converge in Iringa for a landmark celebration on 28th September, to reflect on the challenges that the deaf community face, and the progress that has been made to date.
Work that started over a year ago to harmonize, expand and modernise Tanzania’s sign language, in response to calls for a proper bi-lingual learning environment from Tanzania’s Association for the Deaf, CHAVITA, has borne notable fruits A team of researchers, under the leadership of the Tanzania Institute of Education, and with funding from I4ID, is traveling across Tanzania to compile a database of signs. At present there are more than nine different sign languages across Tanzania, a heavy burden for the deaf community, teachers and educational authorities.
For decades sign language was stigmatised in Tanzania, but in 2014 it was officially accepted as the language of instruction for deaf children. However, very few teachers are fluent in sign language, a situation that isolates deaf children in the classroom. Further barriers are the patchwork of different signing systems and Tanzania’s three-tier linguistic system: ethnic languages spoken at home, primary school teaching in Swahili and secondary level teaching in English.
“Teaching Sign Language to a deaf child is like giving a wheelchair to someone who can’t walk,” says Dickson Mveyange, CHAVITA Executive Director, in his recent Op-ed. “Deafness is a disability of communication, just like paralysis is a disability of movement. Sign Language is not only the most productive medium of instruction for deaf learners, but it empowers and enables deaf people to fully develop personally and culturally. It is the only tool we have to fight against poverty, oppression, marginalisation and inequality.”
In 2018, Tanzania’s main specialist school for the deaf made headlines when every single student failed the country’s most important examination, the O-level Certificate for Secondary Education Examination (CSEE). Closer inspection of the results showed that deaf children across the country were failing at an alarming scale: 76% received a Fail at CSEE compared with 0.7% of hearing students.
The government responded with a review of deaf education, a step that has led to significant improvements for the deaf community. New examination frameworks, and quality assurance procedures were introduced, and the government has committed to train 500 teachers on sign language. Recently, the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation introduced sign language (SL) translation for the mainstream news show as a result of an engagement with CHAVITA.
“The responsibility of society to invest in and provide a language for the disabled is overlooked,” says I4ID team leader - Sachin Gupta. “It’s something we all take for granted, forgetting that we all had to be taught to speak, read and write our own native languages at an early age.”
Institutions for Inclusive Development (I4ID) is funded by UKAid and IrishAid, and supports government, civil society and the private sector to strengthen institutions in Tanzania.
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