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Badilisha Lugha KISWAHILI

Sign language an important education and information tool

23rd July 2012
Interpreters help the hearing who donít understand sign language and vice versa. (File photo)

One afternoon last year during the Public Service week famously known in Kiswahili as ‘Wiki ya Utumishi’, which was held at Mnazi Mmoja grounds, I was at our pavilion providing information to visitors, when two people, a lady and a gentleman approached me and started showing me some signals with their hands. They continued for about five minutes; while I remained startled and confused. I, however, realised they were deaf who, through sign language, wanted to know activities of my organisation. My colleagues were also helpless as they did not know how to help these special visitors.

Knowing our confusion, one of them, the lady signaled to the gentleman to start interpreting. She introduced herself as Miss Tungy Mwanjala, a Public Relations Officer of the Coalition of Projects for the Deaf in Tanzania also known as ‘Umoja wa Miradi ya Viziwi Tanzania (UMIVITA)’. Through an interpreter, she said that she has gone through a number of pavilions to see whether organisers of that public exhibition had considered the needs of deaf persons in accessing information and education. She found none of the pavilions had sign language interpreters.

It is obvious that if Miss Mwanjala was not accompanied with an interpreter, she would have been denied access to necessary information.

This situation faces many deaf persons in the public sphere -in buses, police stations, courts, schools, hospitals and many more. Sign language has not been considered as in important language across sectors. This has denied people with hearing impairment their rights to information and education.

This article is going to discuss the importance of sign language to people with hearing impairment.

According to Wikipedia, sign language (also signed language) is a language which, instead of acoustically conveyed sound patterns, uses visually transmitted sign patterns (manual communication, body language) to convey meaning—simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to fluidly express a speaker's thoughts.

Hundreds of sign languages are in use around the world and are at the cores of local deaf cultures. Some sign languages have obtained some form of legal recognition, while others have no status at all.

Deaf people have missed many opportunities due to the fact that they were being left out because of the gap that language barriers created. Vocational training for the deaf has been created as a means of teaching those skills that will enable them to become self sufficient.

Tanzania Society for the Deaf (TSD) or Chama cha Viziwi Tanzania (CHAVITA) works closely with other organizations in order to support deaf people. According to information posted in the Foundation for Civil Society website, University of Dar es Salaam and CHAVITA are in discussion of the possibility of introducing a sign language course in their curriculum. Furthermore the linguistic department of the University of Dar es Salaam is also looking into producing a good quality sign language dictionary. At present a sign language dictionary does exist. However the inside pages are printed in black and white and not the best of qualities.

The main goal is to try and reduce the communication barrier that exists between deaf people and people with full hearing abilities. It is absolutely essential to teach sign language as there is a great shortage of sign language translators.

Sign language translators are needed in every society from the village to city level. Also most of the major institutions, especially government institutions like hospitals, police station and courts, badly need sign language translators.

About two million Tanzanians are estimated to be deaf. However, this could not be a realistic number because not all deaf people are recognized by any institution or even through national census. There are families that hide disabled members and it makes it very hard to get the correct number of deaf people. But even with the two million count, the number of people not getting proper or any public service is too high and it has created unpleasant experiences for some members of the deaf community.

Families need to learn signs for the sake of their deaf children – yet they are often denied the chance. Children who are born to deaf parents learn how to sign from their parents. However, 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents and at the moment it is incredibly difficult for them to access courses so they can learn to sign.

Sign language is becoming a popular teaching style for young children. Since the muscles in babies' hands grow and develop quicker than their mouths, sign language is a beneficial option for better communication. Younger children can learn and pick up sign language quicker than they learn to speak. This decreases the confusion between parents when trying to figure out what their child wants.

Gary Morgan, professor of psychology at City University, London, quoted in Guardian (UK) Newspaper of 15th January 2012, commented that a delay in access to language and communication "can have severe and long lasting effects for a child's cognitive, social-emotional and academic skills. Many deaf children arrive at school with the task of learning a first language rather than learning about the world through already developed language."

Societal prejudices and barriers are not in Tanzania alone. For example, such prejudices and barriers prevent deaf Angolans from enjoying their human rights fully. One of the major barriers is the lack of acceptance and usage of sign language. As a result, most deaf people in Angola have very limited access to education and information. The Angolan Sign Language Dictionary was completed in 2008, by the Associação Nacional dos Surdos de Angola (ANSA) and the Angolan Ministry of Education, in an attempt to remedy this oversight.

However, official endorsement of the dictionary, by the Ministry of Culture, is pending, stalling the progress made thus far. Complicating this issue is the inability of deaf people to express themselves in spoken language, making it near impossible for them to voice their demands for the end of the injustice they are subjected to.

Challenges facing deaf people are all over the world, for example: in the United Kingdom, for many deaf people, born with no hearing, British Sign Language (BSL) is their first language. They cannot use word sounds for learning so deaf people often have lower literacy than their hearing peers, putting them at a disadvantage when taking assessment tests in English. It is agreed that questions should be signed in BSL, but for tests on technical topics there are not enough expert sign language interpreters.

Many deaf people suffer discrimination and oppression especially where they fail to communicate their cases effectively.

In 2010, the Tanzania Society for the Deaf (TSD)/ CHAVITA issued a statement that they want sign language to be made constitutional. TSD called on political party leaders in the country to urge the government make sign language constitutional. This they said will enable it to be among compulsory languages in all places offering basic social services.

The current constitution provides for the rights of every citizen to access and give information, something which with lack of sign language, is denied to the deaf for lack of communication between them and other normal people.

If in Uganda, the language has already been made a constitutional matter, why not in Tanzania where the deaf unnecessarily suffer in every aspect of life including hospitals and the court of laws.

As we are currently collecting opinions for the new constitutions, CHAVITA and all stakeholders should advocate for sign language to be included among languages recognized by our constitution, and should be used in all public spheres.

I appeal for all people to find ways to learn sign language, it is really interesting. I have planned to take my time to learn it so that I will also have an opportunity of sharing vital information with the deaf.


The writer Masozi Nyirenda is a specialist in Economics of Education and Finance, Education Planning, Management and Policy Studies. He can be reached through: or +255754304181

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