Why Deaf SASL interpreters


Sign Language

South African Sign Language (SASL) has been included in the Bill of Rights since 1996 as an indigenous language to be protected. In 2015 a brave Deaf learner initiated a court case against the Department of Education, demanding that SASL should be a subject in school. The result was that SASL would be offered as a home language subject for the first time and in 2018 the first matriculants completed their schooling with SASL as a subject. But while talks of SASL becoming the twelfth official language have been in the works for much longer, progress in terms of Deaf access, recognition, and empowerment has been slow. One of the chief means in which upliftment is being enacted, however, is through the increased presence of Deaf and hearing SASL interpreters in the spaces where they are needed most.

On the 1st of October, Folio had the privilege of attending a workshop concerning the question “Why Deaf interpreters?” Presented by SASL interpreting duo Ayesha and Marsanne, the Folio team was given insight into Ayesha’s life as a Deaf activist leading up to her becoming the first Deaf SASL interpreter to interpret live on national television. This is a big step forward following the first appearance of a Deaf SASL interpreter on South African television during the initial Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 and demonstrates the potential for further progress in the realm of SASL interpreting and Deaf representation.

The intention of this blog is not to disregard the work of hearing SASL interpreters, but rather to acknowledge that there is a need to bring more attention to Deaf interpreters in South Africa. As home language SASL users, there is less chance of information being lost in translation. The signs are produced more congruously thanks to the Deaf SASL user’s native fluency, resulting in a message that is more accessible to the Deaf community. Furthermore, the job creation and exposure will empower the Deaf community long bereft of representation and access to information.

Hearing SASL interpreters are still an important part of the equation, even when a Deaf SASL interpreter is interpreting. Interpreters need to work on a rotational basis and as such an interpreter for any language – whether spoken or signed – will seldom work alone. In cases such as when Ayesha interpreted President Ramaphosa’s address in real time, the Deaf SASL interpreter is assisted by a hearing SASL interpreter who acts as the “feeder” interpreter. This hearing feeder signs the spoken words to the Deaf interpreter who then reinterprets the information and presents it in a manner that is more comprehensible to the Deaf community. The ease of understanding is facilitated by more accurate articulation due to the Deaf interpreter’s use of manual and non-manual signs in tandem – a skill that some hearing SASL interpreters are typically not as proficient in. In addition to the Deaf interpreter’s linguistic knowledge of SASL, they also possess greater cultural understanding and are able to present the information in a way that is contextually appropriate, both in terms of what suits the tone of the situation and information being presented, and the expectations of the community.

Many institutions have been training both Deaf and hearing SASL interpreters since 1997 and while the current socially distanced world does not allow for multiple interpreters to assist a single Deaf citizen – especially in medical situations wherein SASL interpreters are of vital importance to ensure that Deaf individuals receive the medical assistance that they rightfully deserve – it is essential that Deaf citizens be made aware that this option exists for them. As a means of aid when in need as well as a potential career path.

Organisations such as DeafSA and Deaf activists such as Ayesha are paving the way to recognition for the Deaf community. It is also important that the hearing community plays its part in lobbying for the rights of the Deaf community. Folio InterTel does its bit by raising awareness and offering access for the Deaf community where possible, but there is always room for future endeavours and collaborations. The Folio team looks forward to learning more about the Deaf community and what we as language service providers can do to collaborate!