DR RADICA MAHASE
Keegan, who is 18 years old, was born deaf. He grew up in a household that went the extra mile to support him. He was home-schooled, and communicated easily with his parents and siblings, who all learnt sign language. He had a tutor who also knew sign language. He wrote the CXC exam as a private candidate and passed seven subjects.
Now he is thinking about starting tertiary studies because he wants to be a graphic artist.
According to Keegan, “In my little space, my life is pretty much that of the regular teenager. I hang out with my brother and sister; I have long discussions with my parents because they learnt sign language.
"It’s only when I am outside of my little bubble that I feel restricted. I will love to go to Starbucks and order without my brother or sister there, you know, just have a Starbucks barista who I can chat with in sign language.
"I would love to go to a store in the mall or to the movies and have a normal experience like my brother and his friends. I wish that there were more people who I could communicate with, more people who knew sign language so when I go to fast-food outlets or shopping, I can just sign.
"A few years ago, we went to Disney World and I was very happy because some of the attendants knew sign language. It was good to interact with others. I felt so independent.”
As a teenager, Keegan feels that if more people in TT learnt sign language, it would help to make the country more inclusive.
“It is so difficult to be independent in a world where not many people can communicate with you. If more people were to learn sign language it would make life so much easier. I would feel less isolated and I would be able to do more things without my family having to act as interpreters.”
The theme for International Day of Sign Languages, celebrated on September 23, is We Sign for Human Rights. This day is designated by the UN General Assembly so as to “recognise, accept and promote the use of sign languages…” and to promote sign languages as equal to spoken languages. The UN says there are “more than 70 million deaf people worldwide. More than 80 per cent of them live in developing countries” and there are more than 300 different sign languages.
Teaching sign language in our schools would be a major step in the direction of making TT more inclusive for the deaf and hard of hearing as well as people who can hear but cannot communicate verbally owing to physical and developmental issues such as those on the autism spectrum. Sign language should have a place in our curriculum alongside spoken languages such as Spanish and French and in some cases, Hindi. Students should have a chance to learn sign language in schools.
Many people believe that sign languages are not real languages, that they are just gestures used by the deaf and hard of hearing. This could not be further from the truth – sign languages are fully-developed languages with proper structure, grammar, vocabulary, etc. The TT Sign Language (TTSL) is one of the youngest languages in the world – it was created over the last 70 years – and is a fully-developed language with local dialects and vocabulary.
The benefits of including sign language in our schools as a language subject can be far-reaching for our country’s development. Not only will it make our education system more inclusive to deaf and hard-of-hearing students, as it will promote communication amongst the entire school population; it will also help deaf and hard-of-hearing students to feel less isolated and more independent at their schools. At another level, it will help bring an awareness of deaf culture to society.
In the world of work, sign-language skills can be very useful, especially in the service industries. As Keegan said, he would love to be able to go to Starbucks, or any other business, and communicate with a customer service representative in sign language.
Commemorating International Day of Sign Languages should push us towards including TTSL in our school curriculum. In the words of an anonymous writer, “The issue isn’t that the deaf don’t hear but it’s that the world chooses to ignore…let’s learn how to communicate better.”
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T