Sign language, the bridge to cross cultural communication

Earlier this year SCOUTS South Africa partnered with local NPC DEAFinition to give some of our Scouting members the opportunity to learn about the Deaf culture as well as acquire the basics of South African Sign Language.

We spoke to Director Shubnum Nabbi – Maharaj about the value of inclusion, the importance of skills sharing, and role Scouting can play in bridging gaps and developing friendships between Deaf and hearing youth.

DEAFinition is a non-profit company that provides a range of services and funding opportunities to promote equal access for the Deaf community. Deafinition also provides South African Sign Languages (SASL) courses to hearing people. “We are all about inclusivity and when we say this, we do so with a broad spectrum in mind. Learning SASL is a huge advantage to any person irrelevant of age, gender, or type of disability” says Shubnum when asked why they included courses for the hearing. “90% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents. Everyone wants to be heard and understood. We at DEAFinition identified the gap in communication and believe that sign language is the bridge to cross cultural communication. Anyone can learn SASL, be it a hearing or Deaf person, someone that is non-verbal, autistic, has down syndrome, aphasia, or cerebral palsy. “

Even though SASL is unofficially seen at the 12th language in South Africa, many young people don’t speak it. “Most young people have never met a Deaf person. This is because Deafness is an unseen disability”, continues Shubnum. “It is likely you have passed many Deaf people in the street, but wouldn’t know until there was conversational interaction.  Learning basic greetings can be fun and it certainly opens the gateway, but it takes commitment, time, and interaction with the Deaf community to develop fluency.”

So, how can youth organisations assist in bridging the gap and encourage interaction? “Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.  If you see a person who is Deaf, sign “hello” and “thank you”.  Simple signs go a long way as everyone has the desire for human connection. Write on a piece of paper if necessary and remember to use short, uncomplicated sentences.  There is a lot of information on YouTube and the internet about Deaf culture too. Learn as much as you can with the resources you have available. Be an advocate for the Deaf community and learn about the challenges they face and speak out when negative stereotypes are joked about”, she continues.

As a youth movement SCOUTS South Africa sees it as our duty to promote inclusivity. What could we do to provide our hearing youth with a better understanding of your culture and language? “Visiting Deaf schools is a good place to start.  Scouts have so many skills that can be imparted that Deaf youth may not have had the opportunity to learn at school, such as knot tying, outdoor survival tips, mapping, pioneering etc.  Form a long-standing relationship with a local school where there will be an opportunity for natural friendships to develop over time.  Deaf children love it when hearing children to join their world and look through their eyes. Conversations will start to develop naturally through gestures as the Scouts develop their confidence”, she says with a smile.

Seventy SSA members participated in the SASL course. When asked about the experience the responses were filled with messages of gratitude and excitement for the opportunity to learn.

“This was without a doubt one of the best things I signed up for this year. I have definitely gained significantly more respect and understanding for the Deaf community and the challenges they face on a daily basis. In addition for the hearing people that support the Deaf community’s interactions with the hearing word as interpreters. The opportunity to learn a new language was fantastic and challenging and I am determined to stick with it and continue learning. Thank you for allowing us to be a small part of your lives this month and for giving us such an incredible opportunity. Vanora – 1st Kibler Park

Other participants took the course one step further and included some of the teachings in their programmes.  “I loved the fact that the course covered the cultural aspects too. We will definitely be practicing. We have taught our Cubs some of the basic phrases in the past but will now also cover some of the do’s and don’ts we learnt here”, said Pack Scouter Sharon. Pack Scouter Esme had the same idea “I shared it with my Cubs how to spell their names in sign language❤️”.

For others who missed out on the course and are keen to learn a new language and explore the Deaf culture, in December DEAFinition will be running a special for the festive season! For only R99 you could learn a new language and find out all about Deaf culture. Find out more here: