Fellow Since 1994
This profile was prepared when Robert Simmons was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.
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.