2013 Oct. 20: Deafened by my own ignorance


by Maureen Velile Majola

I got home at 6:00 as usual, and was excited to see the beautiful Sorita. I quickly said hello with no response.  But of course, Sorita is black deaf lesbian and she couldn’t hear a word I was saying.
I said hello in sign language and she smiled at the effort I made.
I started speaking to Charmain and Xana, asking them questions about Sorita.
Then I realized that it was stupid of me not to ask her all these questions.
I started writing questions down for her and asked her to sign everything to me.
We started having a conversation in sign language.

I asked her to teach me how to sign my name, which was so hard for me but I learned it after a few repetitions.
We then proceeded to learning how to say What, When, Why, Where and How.
These are the words one uses all the time and it’s the basis of learning sign language.

As she was teaching me I was signing to the group telling them what I was saying and Charmain started practicing with me, as both of us had never been in close proximity with a deaf person before. We all found ourselves trying to communicate with her. I tried mumbling words so she could read my lips, then I realized my new friend could not read lips, she could only sign.

I felt a sense of guilt and started thinking.
Why can’t I SIGN?
How can I not know how to SIGN?
Why am I so selfish?
I can speak and comprehend 10 South African Languages and not speaking Afrikaans is a choice.
Now my guilt came from the thought that I Maureen Velile Majola, took an initiative to learn all the other languages but never had I thought of learning one more language that is not official – yet – which I believe should be made official. I never paid attention to learning how to sign, not because I was ignorant at the fact that one day I might find myself with a deaf person trying to communicate. I just didn’t see the importance of learning sign language.

In all honesty I believe hearing people are selfish.  I have been selfish in wanting deaf people to always read my lips because I’m too lazy to learn how to sign. With a population of 0.5% who use sign language as their 1st language, I believe it should form part of the school curriculum (because sign language is the only efficient way to communicate with a deaf person) and yes its 0.5% which might seem small to many but it’s this small percentage that is not spoiled for choice (since we can choose from 11 languages as to which ones do we use as a form of communication)

I took a look at my daily life and realized that everything is for hearing people. From the transportation we use, the TV series, music, a car hooter (which deaf people cannot hear). The shop assistant in all stores (they always speak to you without even thinking that some people can’t hear a word they saying) or that competition on TV that tells you how to enter without subtitles for those who can’t hear them.

Maureen Velile Majola traced

Maureen Velile Majola traced by Zanele Muholi (2013)

We (hearing people) always say “music feeds my soul” I wondered if deaf people feel the same way about it.
I thought to myself “if music heals me, if words spoken mean so much to me then what about deaf people?
Do they hold the same sentiments in words like I do, like we do?

I have been so selfish, wanting deaf people to write what they saying down for me so I can respond.
Ngidliwa isazelo!
Because I should know how to sign.
I should be able to communicate with deaf people without any difficulties. Here I am thinking about deaf people and seeing how we have all made this world seem as though it consists of hearing people and no one else.
How have I been so blind about this language, the only language deaf people can communicate with us in?
How have I been living, learning other languages and forgetting one crucial one.
Writing this is freeing my soul and mind from what was holding me back from writing anything in the past 3 months.
It took a moment of silence, a night with a deaf person and that morning walk to Braamfontein to get me writing again.
Who would have thought that silence can change so much.


Related useful resources 

‘See It, Sign It, Know It, Share It’


Previous by Maureen Velile

2013 Aug. 26: Just one day





This entry was posted in Beauty, Crea(c)tive senses, Creative Writing, Education, Emotional support, Empowerment, Evidence, Experience, Exposure, Friendships, Homosexuality, Inkanyiso crew, Intervention, Invisibility, Johannesburg, Knowledge, Our lives in the picture, Perception, Queer visibility, Questioning, Questions & Answers, Relationships, Silent voices, South Africa, Textualizing Our Own Lives, Together we can, We Care, Writing is a Right, Youth voices and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to 2013 Oct. 20: Deafened by my own ignorance

  1. Charmain Carrol says:

    Thank you Maureen, Sorita really opened our eyes in so many ways, we are afraid to go on a train yet for Sorita its for Easy access.

    I don’t want to be selfish anymore.

  2. Ramazan Ngobese says:


  3. Valerie Thomas says:

    Dear Maureen,

    I’ve just read your recent post and thought of sharing my experience with you. Although we might not be located in the same country, your text is alarming and raised so many questions on invisibility of deaf LGBTI communities in SA and African continent.

    Meeting members of the Deaf World is an enlightening journey I am happy you had just decided to embark on it.
    I met with this world ages ago, when I- briefly -dated a beautiful deaf lesbian.
    It led me to write my medical doctorate on the deaf community.
    I think you are right to start with ‘language’ which is, as far as I understand, is the key issue.
    Sign language has been banished for a long time from schools in the US.
    Many Western countries decided to ban Sign Language based on the declarations made during “the Congress of Milan” who took place in 1880.
    During that Congress specialists and professionals declared that Oralism was superior to sign language.
    Right after that “scientific” event in France, Sign language was banned from school and public spaces, until 1981…
    But Sign language is a language, contradicting what scholars once believed that language were spoken and heard.
    Sign language has the same deep brain roots than any other language.
    But the access to a spoken language seems complicated: how can you learn English when you do not hear it?
    Hard to understand it from our hearing point of view?

    Today we know better about the deaf culture.
    Thanks to the deaf organizations especially sports activities, political organizations deaf social movements involved in many debates on deaf education, and Art (Deaf Art, Deaf Artists),
    It is commonly believed that most deaf people have strong visual sense – they can spot you in a middle of the crowd in a metro, during rush hours that is my personal experience- But beside being visual, there are deaf writers, performers and actors too.

    One should not forget to mention the Gallaudet University which is a bilingual English and American Sign Language University, offering several educational programs for the deaf and hearing impaired persons.
    It is a quiet and beautiful place located in Washington DC, amazing to be visited.
    The five most popular majors are Education, Communications, Business, Psychology, and Mathematics.
    On education…we need to learn, and share. For sure!
    So please, pursue your educational journal on this subject matter.
    I, personally discovered so many things. There is so much missing data on our deaf communities, in Africa and abroad. Life can be so different if we are all willing to learn. For example you will always eat your meal cold because it hard to sign and eat at the same time. Remembering that dinner is a perfect time to have a conversation, isn’t it?
    One should note that the deaf world might be perceived extremely noisy for a hearing person. Music is always loud for the deaf persons to feel the bass through the floors, and walls.
    Am reminded how it was always complicated to escape from an ex who could spot me in the middle of an overcrowded place.

    Good to learn, always.

    For supplementary readings

    Harlan Lane, Hoffmeister Robert, Ben Bahan, A journey into the Deaf-World, Dawn Sign Press, 1996
    Harlan Lane, When the Mind Hears: A history of the Deaf, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010
    John Vickrey Van Cleve, Deaf History Unveiled, Gallaudet University Press, Washington University Press, 1993.

    • Rene says:

      “how can you learn English when you do not hear it?” That’s the question I asked myself when I was introduced to the amazing world of the deaf.

  4. Debora says:

    I really think we are ignorent, wish we can do something about this.
    Thanks Mareen

  5. Amo Senokwane says:

    WOW!! I just got a headache from the guilt that I am feeling. This message hit home. A few years back in varsity I learned a bit of sign language, but I stopped learning. I do not even remember why I stopped. Thank you for the eye opening message.

  6. Pingback: 2013 Nov. 10: I can never forget | inkanyiso.org

  7. What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious experience on the
    topic of unpredicted emotions.

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