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The Deaf Invasion of Durban, South Africa

August 23, 2011
Durban, South Africa

A view of Durban, South Africa

I had not attended a World Federation of the Deaf world congress since 1991 when it met in Tokyo, Japan.  The world congress, which convenes only once every four years, has often been too expensive to attend or scheduled at a time inconvenient for me.  But when I learned that the 2011 world congress was meeting in Durban, South Africa, I knew that this time I had to go.  This was the first WFD world congress to ever occur in the African continent and I knew it would probably be decades before the next one.

Although some Deaf people I know or correspond with in Africa were still unable to afford the travel expenses and conference registration, I also knew that some Deaf Africans would be attending the congress for the first time.  I wanted to meet them, and I wanted to attend workshops related to deaf people in developing  countries.  I also knew it would be a great opportunity to tell people in person about the Global Disability Rights Library project that I help coordinate.  (Visit the USICD GDRL page to learn more about the project, or visit the on-line version of the library itself at  USICD, alas, was unable to find the funds to  cover my costs, but I wanted to go badly enough that I met the costs myself out  of my own pocket.

Delegates mixing.

Delegates mingle as they arrive

I arrived in Durban a few days ahead of the congress, when probably only a small portion of participants were there.  During the 11 days I was in Durban, I had an opportunity to see up close how the sudden arrival of 2000 Deaf people affects hearing people.  Restaurant waiters, hotel staff, store clerks, and other hearing people I encountered in Durban experienced a visibly sharp learning curve in how to interact with Deaf people.

When I first arrived, I quickly discovered that I needed to rely much more heavily on the pen and paper method of communication than I do in the United States.  In the United States, I can lip read, albeit with widely varying levels of skills depending
on the person and the context.  In turn, most hearing Americans seem to understand me most of the time unless we’re in a noisy restaurant (I can’t assess how loud my voice should be to be heard over the noise).  But in South Africa, the local accent is different enough from what I’m accustomed to in the United States that lip reading seemed to be basically impossible with everyone I met. Also, many of them seemed to have a hard time understanding my speech as well.  I quickly learned to keep pen and paper close at hand every time I stepped outside my hotel room.

Mural in Durban

Writing used to reinforce civil rights

Using writing as a form of communication does have certain advantages: it is usually more precise than speaking and lip reading in that I, and the person I write to, am less likely to miss nuances.  It also can save a lot of needless repetition on occasions when speaking and lip reading simply fall apart.  But one significant disadvantage is that some hearing people simply do not want to write.  Instead, they insist on repeating themselves over and over even after I’ve patiently explained several times that lip reading simply isn’t working, could they please write instead.  This resistance to writing does not seem to be unique to any particular context:  I’ve encountered it in the United States, in Costa Rica, and—during my first few days there—in Durban, South Africa.  And of course not all hearing people are reluctant to write for communication: flexibility and an open attitude, too, can be found anywhere I have visited.

But as the days went on, more and more Deaf people arrived in Durban, mostly clustered close to the International Conference Center there.  When I first came, I was in a small Deaf minority at my hotel.  By the time the congress opened, the dining room at my hotel that morning was packed with Deaf people signing.  Only a few token, non-signing hearing guests were dispersed among them.  When I went to restaurants for dinner, I could no longer expect to be the only Deaf guest.  The hearing people around us, even those who had initially seemed uncomfortable or awkward or resistant, quickly adapted to us.  People who had initially seemed perplexed by the idea of writing to communicate started to keep a supply of paper and pen on hand.  A few hotel staff even became comfortable enough to joke with me in writing or respond with laughter to my written humor.

Durban musicians

Durban Musicians

In October, the world assembly of Disabled People International will also convene in Durban at the same conference center.  The deaf and hard of hearing people who
participate should now be able to anticipate that many of the people they meet
will be well prepared for them.  After all, 2000 of us gave local workers a crash course in communicating with us in July.  I wonder how quickly they will learn how to interact with blind people, or wheelchair riders, or people with other disabilities in October.  What lessons will they learn?  And how will they use their new skills and knowledge?  Will they learn to more readily identify barriers to equal access around
them and how to remove them?  Will it make a permanent difference in the lives of people with disabilities who live in Durban?

For those of you reading this blog: What do you think?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill Christianson permalink
    August 29, 2011 11:04 am

    Thanks so much for this report – especially your insights on the challenges of lip reading! At the same time as the World Federation of the Deaf was meeting in Durban, Capetown hosted the Education International World Congress, ( including education union leaders from 171 countries. In Capetown, and in our later travels to Johannesburg and Soweto, we kept seeing WFD participants visiting the South African sights. My partner, who teachers deaf and hard of hearing preschoolers in the US, was amazed at so much sign language was being used that she could not understand.

    Where will the 2015 WFD be held?

  2. September 26, 2011 2:20 pm

    Glad you enjoyed the report, Jill! I believe that the 2015 WFD world congress will be in Turkey.

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