South Africa: Deaf Community Hails New Children's Book

The story of friendship brings inclusion and diversity into children's literature, while highlighting the fight to officially recognise sign language in South Africa.

Mpumi and Jabu's Magical Day is a recently released children's book by Lebohang Masango, a social anthropologist and the author of Mpumi's Magic Beads, and Claudine Storbeck, the director and associate professor of the Centre for Deaf Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The collaboration follows two children who meet on a playground and go off on an adventure. One, Mpumi, has magic beads that allow her to fly over the city with her friends. The other is Jabu, a Deaf boy looking for friendship, who helps the other children understand Deaf culture and South African sign language (SASL).

"Deaf children have never seen Deaf characters in books, and in their world 'normal' is hearing children. We want people to know that Deaf children are normal. They just use a different language," Storbeck told the Wits Vuvuzela newspaper.

The joy of this partnership is apparent in the pages of the book, with the character Mpumi still carrying the wonder she had in Masango's original book. The book was written in just one day. These two collaborators found inspiration and pleasure in working together, learning from each other's backgrounds and experiences, which inform the book's context.

Mpumi and Jabu explore the mutual effort necessary when striking up a new friendship - learning how to communicate and how to play together in ways that everyone enjoys. It's a book that allows young Deaf children to not only see themselves represented in mainstream literature, but also for them to be principal characters with agency and knowledge to share within it.

"The book was all Claudine's idea," Masango says. "She explained that there's ... segregation between books for hearing children and those for Deaf children, which is ... surprising to me because both sets of children can read ... [I realised] the first book ... was for hearing children, and I started exploring how these worlds can come together intentionally. You end up thinking deeply about things ... you haven't thought about before, which is great. It's about letting each group know that friendship is a possibility no matter your difference."

Recognising sign language

To many, this book will serve as an introduction to South African sign language and Deaf culture, and this was the main reason Storbeck approached Masango to develop the book. The Centre for Deaf Studies has started publishing books that cater specifically to the Deaf community, and highlight Deaf heroes, histories and poetry. An SASL vocabulary book is also available. All of these are free to download from the centre's website.

South Africa's Deaf community includes more than four million Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, many of whom have been activists in the effort to formalise their place in the country's greater society. The fight to recognise SASL as the country's 12th official language has continued for years, to facilitate a way for Deaf people to access information, jobs, healthcare and ordinary services and activities that many cannot without an interpreter. Deaf people are individuals with agency, and are not treated as such in society and policy, who have a right to access and communicate in a language they can understand. The quest to make SASL an official language, as well as the capitalisation of the "D" in Deaf, highlights this.

"I want to emphasise that SASL is a right and not a privilege and is a language of the first line of commutation for Deaf people," says Deputy Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities in the Presidency Hlengiwe Mkhize. Pan South African Language Board chairperson David wa Maahlamela adds, "The SASL charter is premised on the 'nothing about us without us' disability movement. It is a product of years of extensive consultation with the Deaf community that has culminated to this call to action for our government and civil society to rally together and pledge their commitment to the principles of multilingualism and social cohesion that underpin the provisions of this charter."

The South African sign language charter, which addresses issues related to communication, facilities and social justice matters, including access to information and interpreters, was launched in late August, just before Deaf Awareness Month (September).

"It was serendipity that caused us to launch so close to Deaf Awareness Month," Storbeck says. "There were a couple of delays with getting this book done, and when it finally was, I ... told them don't worry, this is perfect timing."

Intentional inclusion

Storbeck's expertise shows in small details in the book, many of which hearing people would probably miss. Jabu's hearing aid is visible on the cover of the book. His hearing aid container is pictured next to his bed as he sleeps. Lessons in Deaf culture are part of the way the story unfolds as well as part of the work of illustrator Elizabeth Goode. Storbeck and Masango's commitment to ensuring this book was intentionally inclusive is clear in its pages. "This is a very easy way to bring inclusion and diversity into children's literature. It was important for us to have this clear, rather than just as an add-on."

"This book talks about and teaches Deaf culture in subtle ways that are authentic," Storbeck says. "When [the book's characters] talk afterwards about ... a play [they see] and she goes, 'Oh my word, did you hear when Snow White screamed?', he doesn't say, 'No, I'm Deaf, so I didn't hear this. Poor me.' Instead, he says that he saw Snow White's face and moved it to a visual conversation. There's talk of the flashing light at the end of the school day and within Deaf culture this is the bell ringing."

Jabu takes leadership in teaching sign language as opposed to how inclusion often happens, which leaves many on the sidelines, relying on those with privilege to save the day and include them. In Mpumi and Jabu's Magical Day, Jabu is the one in the know, the one with autonomy and authority on his own language and culture, bringing others into it. He serves as a teacher for parents and children to read, engage and learn SASL. There is a sign language alphabet at the end of the book, prompting readers to begin their own journey, too.

The triumph of the work

While Covid-19 has made it difficult for the authors to share the triumph of their work with the greater Deaf community, they say the reception to the book has been wonderful.

At a recent reading at the Centre for Deaf Studies, Masango recollects how a young Deaf child was jumping out of his seat with delight as they read the book side by side. "You could just see through his body and his reactions that he loved it. Claudine told me that he was actually signing and already predicting what was going to happen next in the story, racing ahead saying, 'And then this happens!' That was so much fun because you could see how much he was enjoying it."

A portion of book sales will be donated to Hi Hopes, an early intervention partner for new parents of Deaf and hard-of-hearing children. The organisation works with families to help them deal with the news, understand their options, chart a way forward and get their child access to language. "Accessing language is the only way a Deaf child will become confident and language and culture proud. Through this we are creating a society that facilitates inclusion for children like Jabu and Mpumi," Storbeck said.

While there are no promises from either of the collaborators, they are excited at the prospect of Mpumi and Jabu having more adventures together.

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