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Breaking the silence: How Claudine Storbeck is amplifying the voice of the deaf

6 July 2020 7:00 PM

Professor Storbeck is advocating for universal screenings to detect deafness in newborns before they are discharged from hospital.

As humanity is faced with increasing global emergencies, now more than ever, we must all contribute to solutions: for good, and for the good of all people. In the Wits Impacts For Good podcast series, Eusebius McKaiser engages in conversation with Wits Originators, forward-thinking researchers from Wits University, interrogating problems and seeking robust and impactful solutions, backed by leading research.

Meet Claudine Storbeck — the Wits professor championing the cause of the deaf community by ensuring that all babies and children are given equal access to education and opportunities in order to reach their full potential.

When Claudine started working as a teacher of deaf students, she did not know sign language. It was through her experiences with learning from her deaf learners that she realised the urgent need for teacher training courses at universities. For Claudine, this need became the basis for research with impact and, the reason behind her decision to develop a South African Sign Language course in collaboration with Wits University.

Since then, Claudine has become a world specialist in Deaf Education and her research into the early detection of deafness in babies sees her advocating for universal newborn screening to ensure that the human rights of every child are upheld.

As a hearing person, Claudine's critical distance from the struggles of the deaf community has enabled her to conduct research without bias. It has allowed her to see the gaps without the burden of having to address the needs within herself.

HI HOPES for the holistic development of deaf children

For more than a decade, HI HOPES — the community outreach arm of the Centre for deaf Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand has fostered the empowerment of thousands of deaf and hearing-impaired infants and their families through early intervention frameworks.

Led by world specialist in deaf Education, Professor Claudine Storbeck — the ground-breaking programme is the only one of its kind in South Africa and is aimed at ensuring the holistic development of babies and children with hearing loss so that they have access to the same opportunities as their hearing peers.

In another first of its kind — HI HOPES has collaborated with Netcare and the South African Association of Audiologist to launch South Africa's first national newborn hearing screening programme, aimed at detecting hearing loss in newborns so that it can be addressed early on.

In the absence of screening, what kind of human rights injustices are we perpetuating in terms of the intellectual and the psychosocial development of all children?

It's a fundamental human rights issue that impacts on quality of life — "Without language one cannot have equal and accessible communication, without language or the language rights, teachers don't know how to sign properly. So, children are in schools, being taught by teachers who aren't even fluent (in sign language) and in an academically accessible way to the language," says Claudine Storbeck.

The harsh realities of being deaf in a hearing world during a pandemic:

Access to crucial information

In the midst of the pandemic when information is constantly changing — getting critical messages about the disease and healthcare services to deaf and hearing-impaired individuals has been a struggle for most countries.

This hidden struggle faced by South Africa's deaf community had not gone unnoticed.

To ensure that President Cyril Ramaphosa's address reached deaf people, the Centre for Deaf Studies at Wits arranged for a sign language interpreter to translate his message on national television during the coronavirus lockdown. In addition, the centre has also played an important role in filtering crucial information to the deaf and hard of hearing communities in South Africa.

Face mask isolation

In the age of the Covid-19 pandemic, the widespread use of face masks to contain the spread of the virus has left the deaf community even more isolated than before.

Face masks have created communication barriers for deaf and hearing-impaired individuals, making it impossible for them to communicate. Face masks muffle words, obscures the mouth and prevents them from reading lips and facial expressions – prohibiting them from conducting the most basic of activities such as communicating with a cashier in a supermarket.

In an effort to remedy this communication issue, the KwaZulu-Natal Blind and Deaf Society have created deaf-friendly, transparent face masks that allow deaf and hearing-impaired South Africans to read lips and facial cues. While it is not a panacea, the clear plastic window that leaves the mouth visible makes it easier for deaf and hearing-impaired individuals who rely on lip-reading to communicate.

Transparent face masks are retailing at R20. To support the KwaZulu-Natal Blind and Deaf Society, please send an email to pr@bdskzn.org.za to place your order.


6 July 2020 7:00 PM

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