What South Africa’s new official language means for the workplace

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Talent, diversity and inclusion strategies will need to be adapted, say HR leaders.

On 3 May, the South African National Assembly passed the Constitutional Eighteenth Amendment Bill, which will make the necessary changes to the Constitution making room for South African Sign Language (SASL) to become the country’s 12th official language.

This undoubtedly brings changes to many organisations as talent, diversity and inclusion strategies will need to be adapted to be specific for deaf/hard of hearing (HoH) people.

Shubnum Nabbi-Maharaj, director of DEAFinition NPC (Deaf) – an NPO belonging to eDeaf – says although the deaf community has been eagerly anticipating this recognition,, businesses that employ deaf individuals will have to move beyond the mere exchange of basic greetings in sign language by acquiring a basic understanding of the language.

“It is important to remember that deaf people cannot learn to hear, but hearing people can learn to sign. By acquiring a basic understanding of sign language, businesses can develop a greater awareness and sensitivity towards this linguistic minority group. Everyone desires to be seen and heard in the workplace, but for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, it is crucial to ensure that the appropriate reasonable accommodations are in place to meet their needs. When inclusion is executed correctly, there are mutual benefits for all parties.”

Time for change

Phylla Jele, HR and transformation executive at digital solutions firm e4, says although businesses are speaking about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging within their culture initiatives, more specifics will need to be developed for the deaf and HoH community.

“This amendment will require workplaces to adapt communication to ensure the inclusivity that is required for deaf/HoH employees,” she says. “It is estimated that the country has four million deaf people, however SASL is taught mostly in schools for the deaf. The question then is, why this boundary has not been addressed all along.

“Inclusivity cannot stop at a certain point when we know that there are still people in our communities that have daily usage in the workplace, and the other 10 languages are used depending on meeting limited job prospects due to their physical impairment.”

Phylla adds that to address belonging for deaf/ HoH employees, employers will need to fully educate staff, suppliers, and clients. “Most of us have worked in different environments, and if you were to ask, ‘How many deaf/HoH employees have you worked with?’ I bet most South Africans would state less than five. We have addressed braille signage, wheelchair ramps, and extra days for employees with declared mental impairments. It is time we include the deaf society.

“Employers can state their intention to hire deaf candidates from the beginning of the recruitment process: an interpreter can be part of the interview panel, and transcription technology transcription can be used, bearing in mind to constantly check, as technology as times fails us.”

She adds that talent strategies will also need to be adapted to be specific in being inclusive of deaf/HoH people. “South Africa as a country is battling with talent acquisition, while at the same time encouraging hybrid/remote working. Should our efforts not be in aligning these differentiated work environments to cater for deaf people in different industries and fields?”

Weighing in on the changes, Besa Muthuri, strategic human capital management executive at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), says this is definitely a step in the right direction. “I would recommend including diversity, inclusion and transformation KPAs in performance management and development systems to ensure this becomes a success and the deaf community genuinely appreciate the approval of sign language – not just approval on paper, but proof that implementation is a success and appreciated as well as prioritising sign language training for willing employees.”

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