The Deaf Community in Flanders and South Africa: an Ethnographic Analysis

Mieke Van Herreweghe, Myriam Vermeerbergen

Ghent University, Belgium, Research Foundation-Flanders, Belgium / University of the Free State, South Africa


Schein (1989) proposes a theory of Deaf Community development and hypothesizes five factors which account for “the unique social-psychological behavior of Deaf people that resulted in the development of the phenomenon called the Deaf community” (p. 200): demography, alienation, affiliation, education, and milieu. In this paper we shall apply Schein’s theory to the Deaf communities in Flanders and South Africa and also Ladd (2003)’s conceptual framework about colonialism and Deaf communities.

In Flanders the Deaf community has a long established tradition (Van Herreweghe & Vermeerbergen, 1998). The 25 to 30 currently active Deaf clubs are among the oldest societies in Belgium, but today we can see a decline in membership and attendance of Deaf clubs, especially by younger Deaf people. In order to try and find out what causes the decline we interviewed a number of young Deaf people through Flemish Sign Language. This paper will draw on these ethnographic interviews and confront them with Schein’s and Ladd’s theories.

The situation in South Africa is quite different. The South African National Council for the Deaf was founded in 1929 (SANCD, 1979). However, throughout its lifetime the focus of the SANCD seemed biased towards white Afrikaners as opposed to coloured and black South Africans. In 1995, SANCD was replaced by DeafSA (Deaf Federation of South Africa). Today, DeafSA is a coordinating national umbrella organisation, but has only five provincial offices; in the other provinces DeafSA is not very strong. Hence, there are many “grassroots” organisations where Deaf people gather on an informal basis. This can range from “hearing” pubs which are frequented by Deaf people to chat and drink, to completely Deaf sport clubs, etc. These informal gatherings seem to be the precursors of Deaf clubs. In many places we can witness an emergent Deaf community. In order to understand how this works a large scale ethnographic research project into the life worlds of the Deaf communities in South Africa was set up in which Deaf people were interviewed by Deaf interviewers through South African Sign Language. Deaf interviewers were given a list of topics to use as guidelines for the interviews. Apart from some personal (anonymised) information all the questions concentrated on communication in different domains. Next, we also interviewed two people who hold high positions in DeafSA, i.e. Wilma Druchen, a Deaf MP (for the ANC) and Chairperson of DeafSA and Bruno Druchen, National Director of DeafSA. For the purposes of this paper, we will limit ourselves to an analysis of what people have told us about Deaf clubs in South Africa and again confront this with Schein’s and Ladd’s theories.


Ladd, P., Understanding Deaf Culture. In Search of Deafhood, Multilingual Matters, Clevedon, 2003.

SANCD, 50 Years’ Jubilee: SANCD for the Deaf. Jubileum: 50 jaar. SANR vir Dowes, 1979.

Schein, J., At Home among Strangers. Exploring the Deaf Community in the United States, Gallaudet University Press, Washington DC, 1989.

Van Herreweghe, M. & Vermeerbergen, M., Thuishoren in een Wereld van Gebaren, Academia Press, Gent, 1998.

Session: Paper session
Various Topics
Friday, April 4, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 16