June Bothma, 48, has lived in Claremont, Cape Town, all her life. Deaf since the age of six months, she was schooled in Hout Bay before working for 28 years in the clothing industry. She now teaches sign language at the University of Cape Town and elsewhere. She is married to Christopher, a carpenter, and they have three children: Jessica (19), James (15) and Jonathan (4). Here, she talks about life as she experiences it.
Iwake up throughout the night as my son Jonathan comes to me at anytime. He signs to me in the dark on my tummy, asking for water or needing the bathroom.
We all get up at around 6.30am and Chris cooks porridge, which we all eat together at the table. I met Christopher through my parents, who went to deaf school with his mother. His own deafness is between moderate and profound. I started looking after his children, Jessica and James, when Jessica was 7. Both of them are deaf, and James is autistic as well.
When I met him in 2002, Christopher was doing freelance contracts as an installer for cold rooms. He was then offered work in Johannesburg for nine months. I looked after Jessica, who was seven, while he was away: we both thought it wouldn’t be good to unsettle her for a temporary job.
Many people, including most mothers, told me I was crazy to take Jessica. I explained to them that I just felt God had dropped her into my arms, into my care. I still remember what she was like when she came into my life. She sat in the front of the car to be next to her daddy. I was sitting in the back seat, and she kept on looking at me, wanting to know who I was. I explained that I was daddy’s friend and that she and I were the same, being deaf. Then she said that she liked me, and that I was her friend. A few days later, she dropped a letter in my postbox asking me to be her mommy. I have been her mom since then. Until then, she’d been allowed to do anything she liked, and she lacked manners. So I had to teach her manners and to be considerate of people. When some teachers at school warned her class that they were strict, Jessica would boast that she already had a strict mother! Today she’s a totally different person from that young girl I met.
I trained and helped Jessica and James as much as I could. Now they’re teenagers, and James has grown a lot and people tell me how much he’s improved. Seeing the fruits of my hard work is so rewarding. Some people would treat an autistic child differently – and it’s the same with a deaf child – but I treat them like normal children. I feel that’s how you can help them grow. We persisted in encouraging Jessica to study hard for a good Matric result so that she could get into UCT, because it now has interpreters: in our time, it wasn’t easy for deaf people to study at university. Jessica is studying environmental and geographical science, and Spanish. I try not to be less strict with Jonathan but it’s hard because I often feel worn out, having spent most of my energy on the first two children!
On a typical day, I take James and Jonathan to school, buy groceries and do some tidying up at home. Then I work on my PowerPoint slides for the sign language course I teach, before fetching Jonathan at 12. The rest of the day is for the family – nothing for myself, as with most mothers! I make a gluten-free lunch as the whole family has an intolerance to gluten and dairy: something like scrambled eggs and roasted veg, or I use up last night’s leftovers.
I hear nothing, not even a bit of sound. I don’t know what it’s like to hear something. I could hear until I was six months old, then I got double pneumonia. An injection saved my life but made me deaf. It doesn’t bother me: both my parents and my two sisters are deaf. I was 18 months old when I was first enrolled at Dominican Grimley School for the Deaf in Hout Bay, where we all learnt to lip-read and weren’t allowed to use our hands for sign language like our parents did.
I was put in boarding at the age of two so our parents wouldn’t influence us with their signing: the school’s belief was that if the deaf child learnt to sign first, he or she might not want to learn to speak. I only went home at weekends. When I think about it now, I can’t believe I was sent there so young, I’d never send Jonathan to boarding school that young! However, when I turned 12, I decided to do what my parents do and sign instead. To me this made sense, as most deaf people can only pick out 30% of what’s being said by lip-reading. I find sign language much more relaxing and accurate.
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a teacher. In the 1980s, deaf people weren’t allowed to be teachers, and I was very disappointed. There were no great opportunities for the deaf, such as interpreting in universities or colleges. So for 28 years I worked in six different clothing companies, which I enjoyed. I did patternmaking, and from there I was promo- ted to design room manageress and pattern technologist. I loved my jobs, even though the deadlines were stressful. Each time I moved on, my bosses fought with me and begged me to stay. However, while I loved the work, I knew it wasn’t my full passion.
Today, I teach sign language once a week at the University of Cape Town and at Christ Church, Kenilworth, and also at my home. My friends say I’m a different person now I’m teaching. I know it’s because it’s my passion to help people communicate with deaf people. Sign language doesn’t just help a deaf person communicate with other deaf people, but also with hearing people through the eye contact. I’ve seen so many people who don’t sign being shy to look into a deaf person’s face.
I’ve been teaching at UCT since July 2011, and love every bit of it. I asked the students to write an essay on how they feel about having a deaf lecturer, and it was good to read their essays. Some had been very worried about how they’d understand me, and how they’d pass their exams if they couldn’t understand me, but by the end they said they were happy to have me. This Friday I’ll be teaching 69 students and I’m very excited!
My main challenge is fitting into the hearing world. Communicating with hearing individuals depends entirely on the individual. Some people are natural and outgoing and easy to communicate with, others shy away or are difficult to lip-read.
What I find most disappointing is when mothers come to fetch their kids at school, and while waiting, the mothers chat about stuff. Standing there, I feel lost. I try to lip-read because I want to know what they’re talking about. There are times I wish I could hear, just to be able to catch tips and advice on child rearing. Sometimes they realise I’m there and give me some hints of what their conversations are about. But often they look so busy and I don’t feel like going up to them because I don’t want to intrude.
I feel the need to create more awareness and understanding of deaf people. I’ve been asked things like: can I drive a car, or remember what’s being said to me? I was once cancelled on a Contiki tour in Europe because the manager found out I was deaf. When I challenged it, she explained that a deaf New Zealander had been on the tour previously and had misbehaved. I told her that not all deaf people are the same, just like hearing people. The great thing is that the very next day she put me back on the tour! Recently, a girl from a local school asked me to give a talk at their school and it was lovely to be able to share my life and explain the difference between oral and sign language. Afterwards the girls asked questions and I was happy to answer them all.
I’ve never been angry because I can’t hear. The evangelist Billy Graham was here many years ago, when I had just finished Matric. I went with some deaf friends to Green Point Stadium to meet him, and we actually saw people who could get up from their wheelchairs and walk after he prayed for them. Then we deaf people went forward. I remember it so well: Billy put his hands on both of my ears and spoke very clearly so that I could lip-read him. He said he’d come back to me because he couldn’t hear clearly from God about me. A few minutes later, he came back, and again put his hands on my ears and shook them, and said, ‘God isn’t finished with you, He’s using you.’ I know he was right because I love people. I believe God’s using me to help hearing people communicate with the deaf. When I advertise the sign language course in the community, people email me with problems concerning their deaf children, asking me for advice, and others ask for help, such as work opportunities for their deaf children. So I feel I’ve been connecting people.
People used to ask me if I wanted my own child, and it hadn’t entered my mind. I think I expected to be past the age of having a baby. I felt blessed having Chris’s children, who felt like my own. I was happy and these two were already a handful for me! Also, I was 44!
In April 2009, I realised something wasn’t right with me, but ignored it till I realised the timing of things. I did a home pregnancy test, which was positive. But while my husband was thrilled and overjoyed, I was anxious! I was unsure what the family’s responses would be because of my age. I browsed the internet to read about older mothers, and found comments from people saying women who became pregnant at this age were being very irresponsible, etc. So it was a surprise when my family was positive and very supportive, in spite of my age! We have been blessed by this miracle. Life is quite tiring but Jonathan and the family keep me going.
Jonathan has perfect hearing. When I was pregnant, we prayed a lot about it, but to me it didn’t matter whether he was deaf or hearing – I was much more worried about my baby’s general health! However, Chris was relieved to know he could hear, because he felt he’d be spared a lot of the hurt and teasing that happened to him when he went to a mainstream school for a while. However, we basically just trust. If Jonathan becomes deaf, we’ll accept it.
Chris was retrenched in February 2010, and everything was wrong. We explained the whole situation to our children so they could understand what was happening around them and lower their expectations. We also prayed together as a family. If you focus on God in times of trouble, it’s wonderful. And God provided, and we never lacked food and necessities. Christopher wanted me to stay at home for Jonathan and James, and he has been able to provide for the family. It wasn’t easy, but we made it through difficult times. I believe in God because I’ve seen His wonderful works in me and my family. People have tried to persuade me to have cochlear implants or wear hearing aids but I don’t feel the need. I believe that God has ‘wonderfully’ made me, and is pleased with what He’s made. Why should I modify myself if He’s pleased with me?
We get into bed late! We aim for 10pm but this doesn’t really happen because Chris works for himself, so he has to do some sketches or invoices, etc. I work on my slides again, which I change according to the feedback I get from my students, and because I like to keep updating the sketches.
Sometimes Chris and I race to bed and the last one has to switch the light off. Silly! My last thought at night is: ‘I hope Jonathan sleeps through the night!’