Conversations with Myself: Can you Hear Me?

Deaf (Interpreter Sign)

Deaf Awareness Week is celebrated from 29 August to 4 September. The purpose is to draw attention to Deaf people, their accomplishments and their issues. Deaf Awareness Week is dedicated to educating the public about hearing loss, deafness, Deaf culture and sign language. The aim is to ensure that hearing people understand deafness and the culture of the Deaf community.

For quite some time now I have been concerned about the Deaf and hearing impaired victims (I prefer to call them survivors) of crime and how they interact and navigate their way through our criminal justice system. I’ve had the nagging suspicion that most, if not all, are “falling through the cracks” and are left frustrated and angry for not being heard.

It was therefore a real god-send when I received my latest copy of Servamus (a community based safety and security magazine). I found an article written by Jeanette Smit, Head: Academic, Southern Business School (SBS). In the article, Jeanette highlights the following:-

In South Africa we have the Victims Charter (2004) which represents a variety of policy documents such as:
• White Paper on Safety and Security (1997)
• National Crime Prevention Strategy (1996)
• Annual Police Plan (2006)

The Victims Charter, however, has focused mainly on victims (survivors) without disabilities. The needs of victims, says Jeanette (as I suspected all along) does not explicitly address the needs of victims (survivors) with disabilities and does not make provision for allowing victims (survivors) with disabilities to have equal access to the system.

According to this article, the hearing-impaired are more vulnerable to criminal victimisation – both by caretakers and strangers. The following Acts and policies address the status of people with disabilities in South Africa:-

• The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996
• The Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1997
• The Disability Act (currently being drafted)
• The Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998
• The Schools Act 84 of 1996
• Special Needs Education Policy, White Paper 6 (2001)
• Victim Empowerment Policy
• National Disability Policy (currently being drafted)

Jeanette found that according to the official Census report of 2001from Statistics South Africa, South Africa has approximately 300,000 Deaf people. The same report states there are 3,5 percent hearing-impaired people out of a total population of 51.7 million. The biggest group of the hearing-impaired people in South Africa prefers to be called Deaf.

The South African Police Service currently does not have any official statistics on how many Deaf people became victims of crime because neither the case docket nor the computerised system provides for the capturing of specific data of any victim with disabilities. Jeanette goes on to say that Deaf victims (survivors) experience communication barriers when reporting crimes and are therefore deprived of the rights to give evidence. People with disabilities sometimes have dependency issues and are scared to report crimes committed by caregivers, because they are dependent on those who abuse them. They have limited communication abilities and cannot verbalise victimisation. They live in isolation and fear of being rejected by society.

I was surprised to read in this article that no official Deaf sign language interpreter has been appointed by the Courts in South Africa – they mostly use hearing interpreters. Courts use ad hoc services and do not want to use relay interpreters, as Prosecutors believe they cannot be sworn in and it requires extra cost and time. Only seven sign language interpreters have been accredited by the South African Translation Institute for interpreting in legal proceedings.

Jeanette’s research also found (as I suspected for a while now) that the South African Police Service do not adhere to the basic rights of Deaf victims (survivors) in the following respects:

• They do not explain the victim’s right to demand/have access to an interpreter (one can therefore assume that statements are not a true-reflection of events in each case).
• Taking Police statements without an interpreter has the following outcomes:
– A hearing person makes a statement for a Deaf person to sign
– The Police make the statement, resulting in the disempowerment/marginalisation of the victim (survivor)
– A family member/teacher/social worker, whom the Police assume is a skilled signer, acts as interpreter.

Jeanette found that the South African Police Service started with training in sign language in 2006. The training at that stage was not standardised resulting in the provinces using any service provider that could provide the service. Training was standardised in 2009 when only one service provider was used to train members of all provinces thereby ensuring the same standard and level of training. To date, 450 members have been trained at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels after the standardisation. The challenge is that members need regular sessions to practice sign language in order to maintain the skill.
Based on the research done by Jeanette Smit for this article, the way forward would be:

• The CAS system/docket should make provision for documenting details when victims (survivors) with special needs (i.e. hearing impaired) are involved.
• Police members basic statement taking skills should be addressed.
• There should be a closer relationship between the Investigating Officer and the Prosecutor.
• There is a need for the training of Deaf counsellors
• All role-players in the Criminal Justice System should be sensitised in dealing with victims (survivors) with disabilities.
• Investigators should take note of aggravating circumstances where a victim has lost their hearing (became Deaf) as a result of a crime.
• The South African Police Service programme on teaching sign language should be reactivated
• More multilingual people who are skilled sign language interpreters should be used

I am so grateful to Jeanette for writing this article and for confirming what I already suspected for a while now. I just wish I knew who could fix this problems (within the South African Police Service) to prevent further victimisation of the Deaf.

Having completed the second phase of South African Sign Language (equivalent to first year University level), I’m asking myself the question “how can I help and make a difference in the justice system?”

The criminal justice system is not the only place where the Deaf are marginalised. Our health system is also failing our disabled people – more the Deaf than other disabilities because of the communication barriers.

How do we overcome this?

How can I help?

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