When Ilze Aäron, a deaf student from Paarl, graduated with her BEd Foundation Phase degree at the December 2021 graduation, she was the first-ever Stellenbosch University (SU) student to have done so, with the help of South African Sign Language (SASL).
24-year-old Aäron, who is passionate about teaching and plans to teach at a deaf school, described her achievement as “a dream come true” and hopes it will inspire fellow deaf people to follow their dreams. “I hope this makes people realise that deaf people can achieve anything,” she said in an interview.
Aäron, who was given the opportunity to complete the four-year degree in five years, voiced her heartfelt gratitude to the University’s Disability Unit as well as to the SU Language Centre, whose interpreting services include SASL interpreting, for the support they provided towards her achievement.
“They provided me with two SASL interpreters and many other forms of support. The interpreters went to every class with me and helped me with everything I needed,” she said.
Elaborating on the experience of learning in the unique way she did – through interpreters – Aäron said: “In class, I would sit right in front (sometimes as many as 200 fellow students attended the lectures) and the interpreter would sit in front of me and observe what the lecturer presented in the class.
“It’s not easy to observe two people (the lecturer and the interpreter) at the same time. Even though I can hear a little bit and am able to partially follow what the lecturer says, I also had to observe the interpreter’s signs. But after class we would sit down to make sure I understood the work and that I hadn’t missed anything.
“At other times the Language Centre provided a recording camera to record the interpreter for me to watch the recording after class. I would then prepare questions to ask the lecturer, through the interpreter, the next day.
“It was a lengthy and difficult process, so we decided to use a note taker. When none were available, one interpreter would make notes while the other interpreted, because as a deaf student I cannot make notes while watching the interpreter continue signing. But other times I would make an appointment with the lecturer and discuss the work through the interpreter.”
Aäron continued; “In the beginning, I thought the other students must wonder why I always sat in front. But the interpreters were there from the start making sure I felt included and that I had access to lectures and learning materials.
“Moving from a deaf environment to a world where everyone else could hear certainly was a big adjustment for me. It has been such a blessing to work with the Language Centre interpreters, Marsanne Neethling and Gert Erasmus. If it wasn’t for them then I wouldn’t have made it this far.”
Aäron attended Labori High School for a year before moving to De La Bat School for the deaf in 2012. Initially, she had no knowledge of SASL. “For the first three months at my new school, I had to take extra classes after school to learn SASL so that I could communicate with my fellow learners. “Fortunately, I got the hang of it fairly quickly,” she expressed.
Towards the end of her school career, she started helping as an interpreter between the teacher and the other learners in the class, because the teacher could not use SASL fluently enough for them to understand her.
As a young child playing with her friends, Aäron would always pretend to be a teacher. “My family tells me I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” she recalls.
After matric, she worked as a teacher’s assistant at Dominican School for the Deaf in Wittebome, Wynberg where she learned a great deal about being a teacher for deaf learners.
“One day, out of the blue, I was contacted by De la Bat School to ask whether I would be interested in applying to study at SU. Initially, I was unsure but after giving it some thought I realised that I had to embrace this opportunity. I submitted my application.
“I didn’t tell anyone that I had applied, however, and for a few months I didn’t even check my emails thoroughly. Then I found an old unread email from SU, congratulating me on being accepted to the BEd 2017 programme. That was the best moment in my life and here I am completing my studies.”
Vicki Fourie, a senior interpreter at the Language Centre who played a key role in the ground-breaking intervention, said the whole experience of working with Aäron was very uplifting. “We would love to do the same for other students in the future.”
“We collaborated very well with the Disability Unit and the Faculty of Education. It really was a joint effort. The experience made us realise just how big the gap is for deaf students. We realised that, apart from educational interpreting, Deaf students need support in other areas too. We need to create an environment at university where deaf students are not isolated; where they can participate not only in academics, but also in the whole experience of university life.”
Vicki said the Language Centre’s Interpreting Service would like to continue working with the Disability Unit and with faculties and support staff to empower students not only to graduate, but also to have a multidimensional university life.
Aäron is interested in doing research on deaf education and on how to improve teaching styles for Deaf learners. “I want to learn more about what it takes from a Deaf person to adjust to different environments.”
Asked about her future plans, Aäron said, beyond her plan to teach at a deaf school, she hopes to start a tutorial service for deaf learners who struggle with their schoolwork.
“I believe that all deaf learners have the right to learn anything they want, to pursue their dreams, to learn how to overcome their challenges and to learn different things about life ‘out there’.
“It’s important to expose them to life outside of the school environment and for them to understand what it means to stand on their own feet. When they go out there, they will remember everything they’ve learnt,” she said.
“My passion is teaching deaf learners so they can receive an education in their own language from another deaf person. I would like to be a role model for them – I want to inspire them and make sure that they know they can reach their dreams no matter who or what they are. I decided that I would rise above my circumstances and no matter what, I would bring about change in my deaf community,” Aäron concludes.
Pictures: Stefan Els