The National Council is currently securing legal opinion on a strategy for advocating for the rights of hearing impaired or deaf persons not using a signed language to communicate, regarding equal access to live broadcasts on national television of events of national importance like the COVID19 pandemic.
Since COVID-19 arrived in South Africa, the President has addressed the nation many times in order to relay updates on the statistics of the pandemic, inform the population of Government’s strategy, and advise on precautionary measures to be taken by individuals and businesses alike to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Many of us take these broadcasts for granted; it is after all the Government’s responsibility to ensure that the population is aware of the situation and has sufficient information with which to protect themselves. However, there are a great number of people who cannot access these broadcasts.
I am speaking here of persons with hearing loss who do not use Sign Language as their primary method of communication. These are typically people who have partially or completely lost their hearing after they have learned to speak and consequently use assistive hearing devices like hearing aids, cochlear implants, bone-anchored hearing aids and others. Such people already have a language and would rather find ways in which to supplement their hearing so that they can manage living in a hearing world, than learn Sign Language. Please don’t misunderstand me; Sign Language certainly has its place, but it is the individual’s personal choice of which communication method he or she prefers, and that choice must be accommodated.
Television broadcasting has for some years now utilised the services of Sign Language interpreters for news broadcasts, for which they are to be commended. That said, those who do not use Sign Language are still excluded from accessing information. This has been true for many years and lobbying groups, which include the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities, have regularly requested that this group be included but have been unsuccessful despite repeated attempts to engage with government and the national broadcaster.
According to paragraph 1.4.2 of the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, approved by Cabinet in December 2015, 100% of all news content of local television stations must have captioning by 2019. This has not happened. And the deadline was last year!
COVID-19 has highlighted this situation even further and increased the urgency of providing access to information and communication. We are talking about a tremendous amount of people, considering that 15% of the population has a hearing impairment, of which two-thirds do not use Sign Language. Of this group, one-third of those over the age of 65 and two-thirds of those over the age of 75 have hearing loss. All of these people, who are an at-risk group, cannot hear the vital information that the President shares in his addresses.
This is unacceptable and a violation of the human right to information on an equal basis as others.
It is not sufficient to be told afterwards what the President said, to follow the cryptic summaries which appear at the bottom of the screen during the address or wait for Government to issue a meme on their social media giving details of the speech. Every individual has the right to access information in real-time.
The National Council is therefore currently securing legal opinion on a strategy for advocating for the rights of hearing impaired or deaf persons not using a signed language to communicate, regarding equal access to live broadcasts on national television of events of national importance like the COVID19 pandemic.
The impact of COVID19 will still be with us for many months. Something positive that has emerged from the pandemic and the lockdown is the realisation of how precious social interaction and effective communication are for humanity.