Fellow Since 1994
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This profile was prepared when Robert Simmons was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.
Through the construction of a core South African Sign Language, Robert Simmons, a 60-year-old deaf-born human biologist, is working to unite the 3 million members of South Africa's deaf community.
The New Idea
Robert is convening a national forum for and led by the deaf community of South Africa. His Centre for Deaf Studies will help remove the barriers the deaf face in attaining higher academic and professional qualifications and facilitate their entry into the medical, legal and business environments. The Centre will house a sign language school through which Robert is designing a uniform South African Sign Language (SASL), an idea he conceived of while compiling a South African Sign Language Dictionary. He realized then that, despite numerous variations in their sign languages and versions of signed English, deaf people from different communities could still understand each other, while hearing interpreters could not understand the different variations. Robert is now developing a core SASL to unite the 10-15 primary Sign Languages in South Africa (out of 100 or more variations and dialects) and to facilitate communication and mobilization within the deaf community, and between the hearing and deaf worlds. The Centre will also use the SASL to challenge the widespread use of oral and simultaneous teaching methods, so that the deaf can teach, learn and communicate in their own language. The Core Sign Language will be used to train hearing people to communicate easily with deaf people despite the diversity of their sign languages and cultures. It will eventually be implemented in schools for deaf children so that future generations will be able to use it as their first language. The Centre for Deaf Studies will design appropriate curricula to teach interpreters and communicators (teachers and social workers who work with the deaf), and to set standards and procedures for certification. Finally, the Centre will serve as a national platform for advocacy and policy research for the deaf. It will initiate and support research by both deaf and hearing students into all aspects of deaf culture and sign languages.
For the past 200 years, sign language has been legally prohibited as a medium of instruction for the deaf in South Africa. Oral education (the use of speech and lip-reading skills to the total exclusion of signing) has been forcibly implemented in schools for the deaf all over the world since the Milan Conference in 1880. This approach has failed dismally. The Total Communication Method (a combination of speech and sign) and other systems of Support Signed English (or any other spoken languages) are presently used with limited success. The deaf are now openly challenging these oral and simultaneous methods and are demanding their right to teach and to be taught in their own language, Sign Language. Signing has become the fundamental issue rallying the deaf community to deal not only with lower educational standards and ineffective teaching methods, but also with issues of access to medical, judicial, business, social and political institutions. The deaf community is the most under-represented group among the disabled in South Africa, particularly at the tertiary level of education, where there is a desperate need for formally-trained interpreters. There are approximately 28 schools for the Deaf in South Africa, but, due to a lack of interpreters, only one full- and one part-time university student in the technikons and vocational colleges. Without interpreters, deaf students cannot cope in the lecture halls, yet the University of the Witwatersrand, for example, has only one part-time interpreter. The few deaf students who apply to university are usually either turned down or discouraged from attending lectures without interpreters. Because Sign Language was historically forbidden and mocked in public, it has had little chance to develop structurally and grammatically. The geographic and demographic isolation of the deaf in South Africa for over 130 years has further resulted in acute differences among Black, White, Indian, Afrikaans and "Coloured" South African Sign Languages. Yet recent openings within Apartheid-ruled South Africa have brought deaf people from diverse ethnic groups into closer contact with one another. For the first time, through the Centre for Deaf Studies, the deaf community has a vehicle for creating a common meeting ground.
Beginning in February 1993, Robert's Sign Language School will offer courses on three levels for people wishing to become interpreters and communicators in sign language: an elementary level, a "bilingual" level and a level for specialization (e.g., court or hospital interpreters). Robert will initially start with six sign teachers and ten students per class. During 60 hours of classtime, they will explore grammar, theories of signing, and deaf culture using video and participatory teaching methods. The courses will be relocated outside of the University to ensure the program's independence and control by the deaf community. One week before the classes commence, Robert's team of deaf teachers will receive a training in Sign Language teaching methods. All students, regardless of previous experience or ability will commence with the Level One course. Levels Two and Three will be offered after the students have passed their examinations. These courses will provide an immediate source of interpreters not only in Universities and technikons, but also for courts, hospitals, counselling offices and many other situations where the deaf are gravely disadvantaged. The Centre will work closely with the National Council for the deaf to place interpreters. Ultimately, the Centre for Deaf Studies will consist of classrooms, studios to produce video taped recordings of Sign Language, research laboratories and a library of deaf literature.
Robert Simmons was born deaf and educated at St. Vincent's School for the Deaf. His life is testimony to making it in the "hearing" world. He obtained four degrees in Medical Science (B.Sc. to Ph.D.), majoring in Anatomy and Physiology, and spent ten years as a Chief Technician in the Department of Neuropathology at the South African Institute for Medical Research. He then lectured in Anatomy and Human Biology for 25 years at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Since 1985, Robert has designed and conducted courses in Sign Language for hearing people wishing to become interpreters in academic institutions, hospitals, and vocational training centers. His first classes, through the Hearing Impaired Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, were directed toward parents of pre-school deaf children. With increasing demand for classes, he established a Sign Language School. With four other deaf teachers, Robert taught Sign Language courses for university students, speech therapists, and teachers. However, the school's success was limited by a dearth of materials and little exposure to training methods. Robert is retiring this year to devote his entire energy to the deaf community. He is in leadership positions within several advocacy groups concerned with education and welfare of the deaf, notably the Witwatersrand Deaf Association.