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Project makes COVID-19 information accessible to deaf community
Author: Daniel Bugan
Published: 23/03/2021

A new project that aims to make information about COVID-19 available to the South African Deaf community has recently been launched by the Department of General Linguistics in Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

The project was initiated by third-generation Deaf sisters Vanessa Reyneke and Stephanie Lotz, who received numerous pleas for accessible information on COVID-19 from members of the Deaf community. Reyneke is the project coordinator for South African Sign Language Learning and Teaching Support Material at the Department of General Linguistics (SASL).

Currently, COVID-19 resources and information are mostly available in written text or spoken format. However, spoken language is inaccessible to the majority of Deaf people.

According to Prof Frenette Southwood of the Department of General Linguistics, their research has shown that there are a limited number of resources about COVID-19 available in SASL compared to the resources available in spoken languages.

“Without translation of important information into the only language fully accessible to them, members of the Deaf community are becoming increasingly vulnerable," she said.

The Department has received permission from the Western Cape Government to use their infographics as background in their SASL video recordings and their written information as a point of departure in their sign language scripts. They also used the information made available by the Knowledge Transfer Unit at the University of Cape Town.

The first phase of the project focuses on the 10 most important subtopics of health and will include tips on keeping coronavirus-safe, advice for diabetics and what to do when you are COVID-19 positive. The second phase will include another 10 subtopics or any updates of those subtopics already covered in Phase 1. Both of these phases are funded by Stellenbosch University. The Department is still seeking funding for phases 3 to 6 of the project, as well as for the child-friendly COVID-19 information package that they also plan to make available.

“The first information videos have already been released over the last few weeks. The aim is to release one information video per week. We have a list of topics that we are going to cover, but we will also be led by the needs of the Deaf community," said Southwood.

The information has been presented in two dialects in SASL. That is because members of the older generation, who were schooled using sign-supported English or sign-supported Afrikaans, do not necessarily understand SASL well, and need the information in an adapted version.

According to Reyneke, who is also the project coordinator for SASL Learning and Teaching Support Material at the Department of General Linguistics, she and her sister would like the project to reach every Deaf individual in the community.

“The ultimate goal is to see that the Deaf community has access to all information needed for their daily well-being during this pandemic, and in all varieties of SASL if possible," she said. 

Reyneke expressed her appreciation for the support they received from Stellenbosch University to get this project off the ground. 

“We hope that other public and private sectors will also be inspired by this initiative and encouraged to ensure that everyone has fair access to their surroundings," she added.

The COVID information videos are uploaded on a purpose-created YouTube channel for the Deaf community to access free of charge and are also available on the websites and other social media platforms of Stellenbosch University. Individuals can subscribe to the relevant YouTube channel to receive alerts when new videos have been uploaded.