There are angels on this earth. You realize this anew when you visit Worcester in the Western Cape – as I recently had the privilege of doing.
The residents claim that their town is the capital of goodwill in the country. And this may very well be the case, because there are several established institutions in Worcester that specialize in the care of people with disabilities of various kinds such as for the blind, deaf and multiple brain disabilities.
Our visit began at the Institute for the Deaf. The managing director is Cobus van Deventer. He speaks with commitment and knowledge. The institute is now officially engaged in a large project to compile a dictionary for sign language. This is an important step and contributed to the fact that sign language was recently officially recognized as the twelfth national language.
As the explanation shows, this is a huge task. There are an estimated 6,600 sign signs. The problem is that there are several “dialects” internationally. For one word there can be several gestures. Even in South Africa, different dialects exist from region to region, community and age groups.
There are 42 schools for the deaf in the country. They were all asked to be part of the project. If different meanings are attached to a gesture, this is recorded in the electronic dictionary. If you click on a particular word, the different pictures of gestures used for it appear in order of preference. The institute hopes that this approach will lead to the less used versions disappearing so that the language can be more standardized.
According to Cobus, it is a difficult task to learn sign language. He himself, as a hearing person, gets two classes a week to master the sign keys that will enable him to break through to the communication world of the deaf. He thinks it will take several years to be able to “speak” the language properly. Still, we were amazed at how quickly an experienced interpreter can keep up with “translating” when someone speaks at normal speed.
Another aspect that complicates learning the language is that it has its own structure and grammar. For example, a sentence begins with the object. A gesture does not represent one letter, but a full word or concept. It’s not a spoken language, but a sign language. It consists of the following elements: the use of just one finger in different ways, two or more fingers, the palm of the hand, touching or pointing to a part of the body, the movement of the body and facial expressions.
Nowadays, technology plays an increasingly important role in the treatment of deafness, such as a hearing aid that amplifies sound in the ear. Or even surgeries.
At the Innovation for the Blind in the village we meet a special person. He is almost completely deaf and blind. He makes contact with the outside world in a special way. As a blind person, he carries an electronic device on his stomach that looks like a mobile phone that is a bit thicker. You can then send him a message via mobile phone. This is converted by the device into a type of braille that he feels and “reads” on the surface of the device. He does this with his right hand.
With his left hand he takes Stephné Botha’s (the chief executive) right hand. They start with what looks like a wrestling match. The moving arms and fingers then convey specific messages. With the fingers of the left hand she literally writes in his palm. The two talk to each other like land and sand and every now and then they burst out laughing. It is amazing how a man who has so many disabilities can have so much joy in life.
And this through Stephné and her team’s dedication.
At the Sean Kelly Center in the town is a special institution where 28 carers look after 42 children. The manager, Nicky Labuschange, talks about the great challenge of still treating children with such extensive disabilities with love and human dignity. Before she takes us inside, she warns us not to panic. It is still a shock to the state to see how such children are and will remain totally in need of help. One is nevertheless encouraged that caring people, like angels, look after the multiple disabled.
As one can only expect from the government, little or no government money is allocated for such initiatives. And if there is government funding, it gets cut every year. It is mainly the private sector or civil society that makes the biggest contribution. In particular, the Benevolent Trust of the Pool Family of Worcester must be mentioned here.