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15 years and counting!

- By Vivienne Rowland

Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Adam Habib has shared his personal experience of growing up with two hearing impaired siblings.

Habib spoke at the 15-year celebration of the Centre for Deaf Studies held at the Wits Education Campus in Parktown on Thursday, 30 October 2014.

“I watched my two younger brothers struggle over the years – they could, for instance, not go to normal schools. They had to leave home at an early age to attend one of only two racialised Deaf schools – one in Durban and another in Johannesburg – because the country was not responsive to it,” said Habib.

Habib praised the Centre for Deaf Studies and congratulated Professor Claudine Störbeck, Director of the Centre, for its hard work in providing a much-needed service to an often marginalised group of society.

“Not only is this Centre nationally responsive to the concerns of a particular community that is particularly disadvantaged, but it also creates hope in our society that a new generation of Deaf children will not have their futures forsaken. They will also have the right to education and the right to be able to become equal citizens of the society of which they are part of,” said Habib.

Professor Jean Baxen, Head of the School of Education said that the Centre holds a special place in the School of Education because it works with some of the most vulnerable groups of the population: children.

“The social justice project is one that we cannot ignore in South Africa, and the role of education in the social justice project is fundamental. How we deal with children who cannot speak and hear, has not necessarily been fundamental in the way in which we have thought about education studies in South Africa. The Centre for Deaf Studies has placed that group of vulnerable children at the heart of its work and has created the space to support parents and make the voice of the voiceless heard – children who cannot hear what we say,” said Baxen.

The Centre for Deaf Studies started more than 15 years ago when Störbeck asked Wits to provide space for her to start Deaf education at the University.

“I called Wits once day and said “Hi, do you have an office for me? I will pay my own way, just give me a phone and I will pay my own phone bill, but it is important that we start working on deafness and training teachers,” says Störbeck.

Since then, the Centre has expanded tremendously. Störbeck worked alone for about 18 months before she was able to appoint a secretary. This was followed by the appointment of Lucas Magongwa, who now heads up the Deaf education component at the Centre. Ten years ago Guy McIlroy joined the Centre as a senior tutor, which was followed by the appointment of a sign language interpreter, and the launch of a new component: Hi Hopes, a home intervention programme for children who are Deaf or hard of hearing. 

“Currently we have five core staff members at the Centre, Hi Hopes has seven core team members, and 150 temporary people in four provinces,” said Störbeck.

She says the research in the Centre is increasing each year and they hope to grow their collaborations with other units within the University.

“We are the only Centre of its kind in Africa and we do work that no-one else does. We have great specialists and our work overlaps with so many other units and departments such as anthropology, speech, audio and pathology, linguistics, education and health sciences. We would like to collaborate with all of them on research,” said Störbeck.

The Centre’s research component is three-fold: it comprises Deaf education which focuses on Teacher Education in Deaf Education, Bilingual Education and how it is implemented in the new South African Sign Language Curriculum in 2015, as well as the much neglected field of early intervention for families and their Deaf infants. A large part of the Centre’s research is based on a longitudinal dataset gleaned from the Hi Hopes programme, which will be the first African-based longitudinal dataset in this area of research.

“This is very exciting for us. There has never been a South African dataset like this, and this will be very important for Deaf education in South Africa and Africa,” said Störbeck.

We wish the Centre many more successful years!