Social Media the new agora

HARARE - Social media in the form of new technologies has become a new agora world-wide providing a platform for communication among different people regardless of space and time.

Several applications such as Handtalk, Prodeaf, Youtube, Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype are user friendly to the deaf and may bridge the gap between deaf persons and allow for even their integration into the general public. 

Social media provide an opportunity for the deaf to participate on the public and social space just like everyone else. 

The deaf community, regardless of their culture or self-identity, are always hungry for inclusion — to be socially accepted by our peers for our abilities not by our disabilities. 

The rise of social media has brought a new light into these questions, and a new vision concerning the deaf and their communication concerns are now a possibility. 

Although the deaf cannot hear, they are capable of using social media to conquer independence, provided that they can reinvent their own nature, and share, within the peculiarities of their Sign Language, interactive situations.  

Primary and Secondary Education minister Paul Mavhima has been quoted saying that “the government of Zimbabwe is close to luring American multinational technology companies Google and Facebook to assist in digitalising the country’s education system”. 

Thus the government will soon adopt a complete digital learning environment in schools in line with global standards in line with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s vision of transforming Zimbabwe into a middle income economy by 2030. 

This article argues that inclusive development will never be achieved in Zimbabwe if the deaf community is not involved in developmental issues. The true measure of a country’s development lies in how able it is to cater for it’s most vulnerable and marginalised people.

The hypothesis is that if the deaf are empowered with a medium of communication through these new technologies that would allow them to interact with others in the global world their quality of life will improve. 

In this article we seek to answer the following questions: How the signing deaf people are included in communities supported by social media? What are the impacts of the new technologies to the deaf community in Zimbabwe? Does social media cater for the communication needs of deaf students? Can human interaction over the Internet be the new agora for deaf people in Zimbabwe? Is social media a tool for communication and how can it contribute to the visibility and development of sign language in Zimbabwe? Can sign language be the panacea for the communication challenges between the hearing and deaf communities in Zimbabwe? What can be done to help the deaf to access information in formats that cater for their communication needs? 

Social media have been a positive boon for deaf people not only in Zimbabwe but across the world. 

Because of social media, deaf communities are coming together, news now travels faster between deaf communities. 

The interpreter debacle at Nelson Mandela’s memorial became a global phenomenon due to social media, particularly Facebook. 

Social media is the new channels were sign language is not marginalised — everyone is equal. 

Deaf people have for long been at a disadvantage in terms of communication as communication channels have been auditory based (Valentine & Skelton, 2009). 

This means that deaf people have been largely relegated to the periphery of society as they were not able to benefit from these media channels. 

However, the coming of social media has witnessed a seismic shift in the way deaf people access information. Social media are largely unregulated with all people having equal access to it without any restrictions. 

Mudefi (2015) notes that the deaf community in Zimbabwe is a marginalised group that is frequently excluded from a number of programmes aiming at improving the social aspects because of the barriers created by language difficulties. Section 61 sub-section 1 (a) of the Zimbabwean Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression and media. 

It states that “every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information. 

According to Guimarães and Fenandes (2018), the deaf should be allowed and supported in their quest to create their own knowledge in sign language. 

Such use of sign language will allow for linguistic, social and cultural development, because things start to make sense when the deaf is a participant in the collective construction of meaning. 

Social media have provided a new platform for the deaf community to become informed and empowered during emergencies. 

In this case, community empowerment is strengthened through the use of social media, especially for deaf and hard of hearing people during the preparatory, response, and recovery stages of emergencies. 

Deaf people often do not have the privilege of passively obtaining information in the ways the hearing community might (e.g. radio). 

Social media have made life easy for the deaf community; they can access information of critical importance like cancer or HIV awareness programs. 

Previously deaf people lived in isolation because traditional media like radio and television were not accessible to them. 

With the advent of social media, particularly YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo, sign language broadcasts have become pervasive; allowing deaf people to consume and distribute news through online channels. 

As a result deaf people are now more informed and participate in the new media not just as consumers of content but also creators. 

This has given deaf communities and people more power on what kind of news content they consume and create because of access to social media news channels.

One of the biggest impacts of social media has been the free flow of sign languages on the Internet. 

As a result of the Internet and social media platforms, the deaf community in Zimbabwe can borrow new signs and learn sign languages from other countries like Napal, America, Britain and South Africa. 

For Zimbabwean sign language in particular the result has been a borrowing of signs particularly from South Africa and America. American Sign Language (ASL) is widely available on social media platforms like Youtube, Vimeo and Facebook. 

While there are some misgivings about the cross pollination of sign languages, this allows for sign languages to grow through borrowing of signs to expand available vocabulary where signs for certain words are not available.

As a result of social media the deaf community in Zimbabwe can unite and be conscientised to advocate for the development of Sign language and the rights of the deaf in Zimbabwe. 

In terms of sign language teaching and learning, social media have contributed to increased interest in the learning of sign language among hearing people. 

Deaf people and organisations are conducting sign language lessons on social media using Whatsapp and Facebook mostly. 

When more people are aware of sign language the social intergration of deaf people will be much easier. Organisations like Deaf Zimbabwe Trust, Zimbabwe Deaf Media Trust and Miss Deaf Pride Zimbabwe use social media to teach sign language and to recruit sign language students.

One of the best uses of social media has been the dissemination of information, education and communication (IEC) material to deaf people. 

Deaf Zimbabwe Trust, Zimbabwe Deaf Media Trust, Deaf Women Included, Deaf TV Zimbabwe and Deaf Pride Zimbabwe Trust have been developing sign language materials on Breast Cancer, Gender-Based Violence and voter education and distributing these via social media. 

Lastly, social media act as a repository for sign languages, not only in Zimbabwe but the world over. Thus social media play a critical role in the documentation of deaf culture and sign languages. A lot of content on social media relate to various genres of deaf oral literature; mime, sign singing, drama inter alia and this content is available on the click of a button.

While it is important to note that the general attractiveness of social media is the ability to transmit messages in video, the majority of messages are still in text form and written medium. English Language literacy is very low among deaf people who struggle with all oral languages. 

As a result deaf people’s interactions on social media, social media platforms tend to be restricted to other deaf people or deaf groups, whether from Zimbabwe or other countries. Deaf communities therefore still remain compartmentalized despite social media bringing so many people together to one big meeting place.

Social media represent an exciting opportunity for deaf people in Zimbabwe and beyond. While the deaf have embraced social media a number of factors still restrict their full participation especially data costs. 

This, however, applies to all Internet users from Zimbabwe. A review of data costs in Zimbabwe would see further boom in social media usage among the deaf in Zimbabwe. 
While culture and language is dynamic, Zimbabwean sign language, like most other sign languages, may be at risk of being overwhelmed, especially by American sign language which dominates the Internet. 

There is need to ensure that Zimbabwean sign language is documented and fully taught to deaf people in schools, with the appreciation of the uniqueness of Zimbabwe sign language so that the language will not become extinct. 

As an avenue for the propagation of deaf culture, social media literacy needs to be part of the deaf school curriculum. Deaf people should be encouraged to become content creators and not just consumers. There are opportunities in using social media as a tool for deaf advocacy in Zimbabwe.


 

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