Language and culture in the Deaf community: a case study in a South African special school

  • Marga Stander University of the Free State, Qwaqwa Campus
  • Guy Mcilroy WITS university
Keywords: Deaf community, Deaf culture, Deaf Education, Deaf identity, Human rights, South African Sign Language


An ethnographic case study on Deaf culture was done at the Thiboloha Special School in a rural area of the Free State province in South Africa. Two Deaf learners and three Deaf teaching assistants participated in this study. Although they were all part of the hearing Sotho culture, they were also full participants in the Deaf community. The study was done by means of video recordings, interviews, and questionnaires. The study reveals the diversity of the Deaf community with a vibrant and unique culture associated with this school, which gives them a sense of belonging. The analysis of the questionnaires, interviews, and recordings in this study shows how significant it is for the Deaf to be part of a Deaf community and culture, as well as part of a hearing community. It is important for them to be Deaf (with a capital ‘D’) and have a Deaf identity. It became evident in this study that Deaf people prefer to use Sign Language for communication purposes in the Deaf community. The study also shows the key role the school plays in introducing Deaf learners to Deaf culture and community, and South African Sign Language, which connects them to a wider Deaf and hearing community. The school became the participants’ new community where they found their Deaf identity, their own language and culture. The school fulfilled its role to realise the importance and value of Deaf culture and community and succeeded in de-pathologising deafness. This study confirms the responsibility of and opportunity for schools to educate their Deaf learners about their culture and community. 


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biographies

Marga Stander, University of the Free State, Qwaqwa Campus
Marga Stander currently teaches English, Communication and Sign Language at the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley.  She previously taught Afrikaans Linguistics at the Qwaqwa Campus of the Universities of the North and Free State and coordinated the Unit for Language Development. She also taught at a Special School in Qwaqwa. 
Guy Mcilroy, WITS university
Guy Mcilroy is a bilingual deaf lecturer in Deaf Education at the Centre for Deaf Studies at WITS. Guy is doing a PhD on teachers’ transformation to sign bilingualism. His interests are Deaf pedagogy and sign bilingualism, Deaf identities, Deaf-led research, Deaf epistemology and Deaf narratives.