Deaf Communities in Sub-Saharan Africa Lead the Way


In 1996, Uganda was the first country in the world to have an elective deaf Member of Parliament. In 2008, South Africa wrote South African Sign Language into its constitution as one of its official languages. And other African countries have also enacted equally progressive legislation.


On the other hand, the U.S. has never appointed a deaf Congressperson. Nor do all US states recognize American Sign Language as a foreign language.

Many people think of “development” as flowing from Western nations outward. The US especially is accustomed to being the model for others—from capitalism to democracy. But regarding the social and political inclusion of deaf communities, sub-Saharan Africa is taking the lead.

Drs. Audrey Cooper and Khadijat Rashid have taken notice. Both are American University alumnae, and Dr. Cooper is a public anthropology professor at AU through the end of this semester.*

“In many places around the world, deaf people are being denied use of their natural languages,” Cooper says. “Their citizenship participation is limited because of the ideas mainstream populations hold about signed languages or ‘disability.’ They’re often excluded from social, political, and economic participation—if not in policy, then in everyday practice.”

This is not as much the case in Africa. Deaf people here are—and have been—active in their communities, pushing for change and taking the lead in making their lives better.

“They’ve created extremely effective strategies for gaining social and political participation using their signed languages,” Cooper says. But outside of Africa, people aren’t really aware of the progress being made there.

Others working in areas like language rights, gender equality, or signed language research ethics can learn from these African regions—but not if they don’t know about it.

So to promote transnational awareness and share strategies for action, Cooper and Rashid teamed up to host the African Lessons conference in April 2012 in Washington, DC. More than 300 African and American colleagues turned out to jump-start the conversation, sharing research and strategies developed by African deaf social leaders.

“By the end of the conference, people were asking us if we would write a book about all the rich information shared, since no one had done this before,” Rashid says.

And they did. The knowledge gained from the conference inspired the duo’s newly published book, Citizenship, Politics, Difference: Perspectives from Sub-Saharan Signed Language Communities, which they co-edited.

The book is a collection of essays from 16 contributors, and it draws examples from all regions in sub-Saharan Africa, including Western, Eastern, Central, and Southern. These regions are home to more than 2,000 languages and are equally rich in signed languages.

The essays examine sub-Saharan African deaf people’s perspectives on citizenship, politics, and difference in relation to their language practices; and they analyze these practices in relation to sociopolitical histories and social change.

“Deafness has long been considered a disability and treated as such,” Rashid says. “But these communities are advancing different definitions of themselves and demanding to be treated like other citizens.”

One of the main topics explored is how these groups have collaborated across borders to bring attention to range of issues and secure their rights as citizens. “Borders” here can mean geographic, language, ethnic, gender, sexual identity, and others.

“Around the world, deaf groups are often small but very active communities that are leading change,” Rashid says. As editors, the two wanted to capture the activism happening among African deaf communities, which they hope will serve as a model for other countries.

The book’s topics supersede just deaf people in Africa, Rashid says. “It’s really a book about the forces that impact all of us. We are all citizens of a country, we are all different in some way, and we all use language to communicate.”

*In January, Cooper will join Rashid at Gallaudet University, beginning a new position as assistant professor and director of the Master’s Program in International Development.

Want to read the book? Get your copy here or from the AU library. It’s titled Citizenship, Politics, Difference: Perspectives from Sub-Saharan Signed Language Communities, co-edited by Audrey C. Cooper and Khadijat K. Rashid

Click to learn more about a master’s degree in public anthropology from American University.

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