Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera has ordered sign language to be used on all television stations and at official functions, and to be recognized as a national language.
Chakwera said he was concerned with challenges deaf people in the country face largely because of a lack of sign language interpreters.
“We must stop thinking of sign language as a favor to deaf people,” he said. “That kind of condescension has no place in this new Malawi. We need a re-education of our minds to regard sign language as a human right.”
Chakwera said every person has a right to acquire language from the moment of birth, including sign language for people born with hearing impairments.
“In this new Malawi, we want the use of sign language to be adopted everywhere for every function and by every institution,” he said.
Chakwera said his administration will work with the Malawi National Association of the Deaf, MANAD, to make life easier for the country’s 400,000 sign language users.
“It is because of this commitment that we are supporting the reproduction of the first ever Malawian sign language dictionary developed by MANAD to help harmonize the existing sign languages in Malawi into one sign language,” he said.
Chimwemwe Kamkwamba, a partially deaf student at Exploits University in Lilongwe, said youths with hearing difficulties are denied loans to start their businesses.
“We are excluded because they feel like we cannot pay back, which is not a right thing because we are also persons,” she said. “We are also people with needs. We are also people who need to be somewhere. And to be denied that, we (are) being denied our right to do what we believe we can do.”
Stephano Maneya, chairperson for the Malawi National Association of the Deaf, said another challenge is there is only one secondary school for deaf learners in Malawi.
“So, our plea is that government should help us with special secondary schools for the deaf so that after these learners who do better from primary school, they should also get specialized support in special secondary schools and be able to excel with their education,” he said through an interpreter.
Chakwera said his government will look into that, but will first focus on training more people who can use sign language in government offices. Malawi currently has five professional sign language interpreters.