UCT’s first Deaf student passes Bachelors

Robyn Swannack and her parents Alison and Robert.

It is hard enough imagining the challenges a young woman starting university at the age of 16 might face, but when one considers the person in question is profoundly deaf, the prospect seems even more daunting to a hearing person.

It is is even harder to grasp a scenario where that same young woman has not only become her university’s first Deaf graduate with a matriculation from a Deaf school, but in the process has won over hundreds of her hearing peers to take up sign language classes at six campuses at her place of study.

Yet 20-year-old Robyn Swannack has taken it all in her stride, and last week, received her Bachelor of Social Science degree from UCT, racking up a range of “firsts” in the process: first deaf person from a deaf school to graduate and first deaf person to be doing postgraduate studies at UCT.

Meeting in Rondebosch on Sunday June 19, the Tatler sat down with Robyn and well-known southern suburbs sign language interpreter Lesego Modutle to learn more about the graduate’s remarkable achievements.

Significantly, there is difference between Deaf with a capital “D” and deaf with a lower case “d”.

The capital “D” Deaf generally refers to people who are deaf and embrace the cultural view of Deafness, in other words, learning sign language, being a part of the Deaf community, and includes both the Deaf and the hard of hearing people; while the lower case “d” deaf refers to deafness as a medical condition, and thus those who are deaf without taking part in Deaf culture, which includes those who are born deaf but learn oralism (lipreading), for example.

Robyn is a KwaZulu-Natal native, having been born in Durban. However, parents, Alison and Robert Swannack, recognised that in order to give her the best chance in life she would need to spend time at a specialised bilingual Hearing and Deaf mainstream school abroad, as South Africa’s deaf education levels were not on a par with the rest of the world.

“My mom is Deaf, so she signed to me from the time I was a baby and, as a result, I was fortunate to develop early language skills. I spent five years at a bilingual Hearing and Deaf mainstream school in Australia before we moved back. When we did, I attended Fulton School for the Deaf,” Robyn explained.

“However, because the education levels for the Deaf were so much better in Australia, I was placed two grades higher at Fulton, which meant that by the time I finished school I was 16 years old. I was the same age when I started UCT, which no one knew at the time. People were shocked when they discovered my age.”

Immediately upon her arrival at the university, she set about finding new ways to communicate with her fellow students, writing things down and encouraging them to learn some basic sign language. In the lecture hall situation, UCT’s disability unit proved incredibly helpful as both interpreters and note-taking assistants were provided.

“What I did find when I arrived was that some lecturers believed the cognitive level of the Deaf might be less, but that changed over time. Although I started out studying for a BA degree, I later changed to a Bachelor of Social Science. The BA degree was based too much in Hearing Linguistics, but I found that in the field of social anthropology I could also do more to help the Deaf,” she said.

By way of example, Robyn, who is now doing her Honours degree in social anthropology, is working on a dissertation on how parents of Deaf children communicate and formulate decision-making processes.

“I am visiting four families, all from different backgrounds. The first family is from Khayelitsha, and everyone is completely Deaf. The second family presents a situation where only the mother and child are Deaf, while the third family are Muslim, and the child has had a cochlear implant. I am currently looking for the fourth family, as I only started my research last week.

“I decided on this topic for my dissertation because while there has been a lot of research on this subject in the US, there has been none to date in South Africa. If we can have some concrete information, it could help a lot of people.”

Robyn’s determination to change perceptions and attitudes about the Deaf has also taken root in a social project she began on campus, one which has grown exponentially and yielded fantastic results.

“As an undergraduate, I started organising sign language classes at UCT. Many people joined, and last year we had 258 students. Now that number has grown to 800 students, and the classes are being held at six campuses around the university.

“I think a lot of people joined because it was something different. Actually, people join for a number of different reasons. I have a musician friend who plays the flute and the organ, and after signing he found that he has ‘softer’ hands when he plays the instruments.”

While her original intention was to do her social anthropology Master’s degree in Europe on completion of her studies, Robyn, at the insistence of her lecturers, has now decided to change tack and focus her attention on gender studies within her field, particularly relating to the abuse of Deaf people.

“I have written an essay on the lack of facilities for Deaf people in terms of seeking medical and psychological help when they have been victims of domestic abuse. This is a very important topic for me, and I am hoping that through my work I will be able to have a centre for Deaf people to come in with an interpreter.

“A lot of people are disappointed when their child is born deaf, and parents might even hide their children from society. But, really, Deaf language acquisition is the same as learning another language.

It’s like an English-speaking person learning Afrikaans People should understand that, and be aware that Deaf people can function just like everyone else in society.”