A sign language syllabus for ECD to Grade 2 for Zimbabwe: A step forward but not enough

Written By Barbara Nyangairi, Deaf Zimbabwe Trust

On the 18th of April 2019, Zimbabwe celebrated 39 years of independence. While Zimbabwe’s trajectory has been marred by ups and downs, Deaf children’s education has lagged behind the levels of their non-Deaf peers. The lack of language rights has been a major contributor to the challenges faced by Deaf children. Up until the end of 2018, children who are Deaf did not have a Sign Language Syllabus. In 2018, the Deaf community and the disability sector at large commended the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education for the development of a sign language syllabus for ECD to infant level. This welcome development notwithstanding the delay for Deaf children, who desperately need sign language developed, documented and described. The Constitution of Zimbabwe upholds language rights of all Zimbabwe however for the Deaf community, it has been an ongoing battle for them to realise these rights. The experiences of Deaf children in Zimbabwe, are in line with research that shows that many Deaf children are raised and educated in speaking environments and are not exposed to sign language until after the age of five or not ever.

Sign language is the primary language of communication for Deaf children and as basic as it is, has not been provided in the schools. Deaf children continue to be denied language rights even after the syllabus for infants has been developed there seems to be no urgency to the roll out of the syllabus for the children who are already language delayed. The language situation of children who are Deaf in Zimbabwe has been problematic characterised by oralism in school or no delivery of services as the teachers continue to speak to children who cannot hear them and those that would benefit from assistive devices such as hearing aids do not have access to them.

The development of an infant syllabus for sign language does not take into account that there are already Deaf children in the education system beyond ECD and Infants who are being prejudiced because of a lack of sign language syllabus. Deaf people continue to struggle with lack of access to institutions of higher education even when they have other 4 O levels or more because they do not have a language. At the pace that the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education is going with regards to the development and implementation of the syllabus for sign language, people who are Deaf will continue to be prejudiced from Higher education. It is important to know that the sign language syllabus is not just about ticking a box but ensuring that the language rights of a child are respected and upheld. Zimbabwe is a member state signatory to the continental Plan of Action for the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities 2010-2019. The decade is at its sunset and not much has been done with regards to the language rights of children who are Deaf.

Sign language is important for Deaf children’s education as it enables them to communicate complex and abstract concept just as spoken language. The use of sign language for children enables them to develop cognitive skills. Research has shown that if spoken language is not accessible for the Deaf child and sign language exposure is limited there is a strong possibility of permanent brain changes. Children have a critical language acquisition stage in the first five years of life and in Zimbabwe most of these years for the Deaf children are lost while parents and guardians seek medical options and not language options such as sign language. Medical options are not a problem however they need to be supported by strong measures to enable language acquisition.

Language deprivation has serious consequences for future learning outcomes. While there is limited research in Zimbabwe, anecdotal evidence points to the effects of language deprivation in Deaf children has shown by cognitive delays, mental health challenges, lower quality of life and limited health literacy. All these are evidence in the Deaf community as shown by poor educational outcomes and poor health literacy. Very few pre lingual Deaf people have been able to access higher education hence their overrepresentation in poverty statistics.

The delay in the development of the syllabus for other grades means that the language is not being developed. One wonders what the root causes for the reluctance to develop and implement sign language in schools is, could it be rooted in the biases and prejudices of people who are responsible for the development of the syllabus? Could the reluctance be rooted in professionals who advocate for preventing sign language exposure rooting for spoken languages? One wonders. The development of other languages in the constitution such as Venda, Tonga to mention a few were not staggered as the sign language syllabus.

For the language rights of Deaf children and people at large to be respected there is a need for a paradigm shift in the way education for the Deaf is planned and implemented. Sign language is the primary language of Deaf children and there is need for urgent attention to the syllabus development and implementation of the language rights.

Deaf Zimbabwe Trust