Deaf students are joining mainstream universities in greater numbers in Indonesia since a regulation was passed on accommodating special needs in higher education. But as lecturers and students struggle to communicate, many deaf students are failing in their academic careers, and opting to drop out.
The problem lies not only with the universities, where lecturers rarely have any special training on how to teach deaf students. It extends to the education system as a whole, which is not preparing deaf students to perform well in higher education.
Whether in segregated, integrated or inclusive schooling, deaf students are not catered to in a way that considers their language and learning needs. In part, this is due to the government's insistence on deaf students learning via a sign-language system that was invented by the hearing, and not via their own natural sign language, which has become the 'mother tongue' of the deaf community.
Students and activists are now making the case for the native language of the deaf to be considered in the same way as any other minority language – for it to be respected as an important marker of cultural identity, and for it to be used as the language of instruction for deaf students in schools and universities, giving them a better chance at an education.
In their own language
Language is a significant issue when speaking about the deaf community, because of a widespread view of deafness as a state of being language-less. The deaf community is an excluded social and cultural group, and can be considered a minority language group.
In Indonesia, deaf children are mainly educated using a signing system called SIBI, the Indonesian Language Signed-System. SIBI is a system designed by the hearing as part of a language normalisation approach. It was assumed to be suitable for educating Indonesia's deaf children because it replicates the grammatical structure of the national language, Bahasa Indonesia. Based on this assumption, the Indonesian government has made SIBI the nation's official sign language, to be used as the instructional language in schools.
But in their everyday lives, deaf students are accustomed to communicating using Bisindo, the natural sign language of Indonesia, which developed independently among the deaf community, and follows a completely different grammar.
Sign language, like verbal language, bears linguistic characteristics that are compatible with the requirements of perception, production and transfer of information. For many deaf students, learning via SIBI is comparable to learning in a foreign tongue.
Their educational achievements are a reflection of this – research has shown that on average, deaf students aged 17-18 years write at the level of hearing 9-10 year-olds, and in reading have a limited vocabulary and struggle to comprehend grammar.
Once they enter university, weak literacy skills become a major problem. Lecturers without any special training face challenges in knowing how to teach, assess and evaluate the learning processes of their deaf students. Consequently, they rely on the written platform to communicate, which in turn poses challenges for students to comprehend course materials and complete assignments.
Like anyone else, deaf people need to be well exposed to their mother tongue – in the case of the deaf, this means a natural sign language. Why does this matter? Because the acquisition of a native language profoundly influences the development of literacy skills. Deaf children who possess a solid foundation in sign language as their mother tongue acquire literacy more easily than those who do not have a foundation in any language.
But in most schools for the deaf – including segregated special schools, which tend to have a vocational rather than an academic focus; and integrated public schools with separate classes for deaf students – instruction is conducted using a combination of SIBI and oralism approaches, such as lip reading and voice training.
Since Indonesia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2011, the trend of inclusive schooling, where deaf students are placed in the mainstream with their hearing peers, has increased. Unfortunately, inclusive education has not been well managed in practice. Teachers lack competencies in accommodating deaf students in mainstream classes, and the curriculum does not cater to their needs. Many deaf students end up back in special schools.
Because deaf students are forced to comprehend the logic of Bahasa Indonesia through SIBI without first developing a solid language foundation, they subsequently face problems in developing skills in other language systems, including written systems. To be able to survive in university, deaf students need to develop excellent literacy skills. For this, exposure to natural sign language should be promoted as early as possible.
The debate around SIBI and Bisindo is therefore not only about deaf cultural identity, but also language acquisition, the development of literacy competencies, and deaf students' chances at attaining a higher education.
Deaf youth are now actively promoting their right to natural sign languages, and are pushing the Indonesian government to authorise Bisindo as the official sign language in place of SIBI.
A national movement for the welfare of the deaf, Gerkatin, is also making the case for Bisindo as the national sign language, on the basis that SIBI is an invented signing system designed by the hearing without the involvement of the deaf community, while Bisindo is a natural sign language that originates from deaf culture and represents deaf cultural identity.
Replacing SIBI with the natural language of Bisindo in schools, and enhancing teachers' special needs competencies, has the potential to help students build a solid language foundation from which to develop their literacy skills, and ultimately succeed in their education.
Giving the deaf total and legal access to their native language, Bisindo, is the wisest way we can show that we hear their demands.