Witwatersrand (Wits) student Nyeleti Nokwazi Nkwinika, who is deaf and uses South African Sign Language as her first language, has recorded a remarkable first, graduating with a Master of Arts (MA) degree by dissertation in South African Sign Language (SASL) using filmed SASL as the language to report on her research.

Nkwinika is the first person (Deaf or hearing) to receive a Master’s from the SASL Department and the first Wits graduate to use a marginalised language (SASL) to report on her research into the possible origins of the vocabulary of SASL.

Nkwinika’s research investigates the borrowing of lexical items in SASL and aims to find out the extent of lexical borrowings from Irish Sign Language, British Sign Language and American Sign Language, Wits University said.

Her dissertation, titled: An investigation of lexical borrowing in the South African Sign Language (SASL) lexicon was jointly supervised in the SASL and Linguistics departments.

Read: Meet Haben Girma, Harvard Law’s first deaf-blind graduate

Her studies were partially funded by the Department of Arts and Culture through a bursary programme for studies in marginalised South African languages administered by the Department of Translation and Interpreting at Wits University.

Nkwinika’s extraordinary story highlights her courage and determination despite physical challenges, and she is living proof that disability is certainly no barrier to achieving academic excellence.

At a celebratory function held for Nkwinika earlier after her graduation this week, she thanked those who had supported her throughout her studies, Wits reported.

“ I just want to say thank you all for coming here. It has been a long time of passionate studying – it is coming to an end. I just want to say thank you to my family, my friends, and my interpreters. Thank you everyone. I am very excited today and it is great to have everyone here.

She says her studies were not easy, but she persevered.

“It has been a struggle! It has been challenging. I was actually quite fed up with this at some point. I wanted to give up because there were continual updates, but my goal was to graduate. I can now relax. I have achieved what I wanted to,” says Nkwinika.

Dr Ruth Morgan, one of her supervisors says that the education sector needs people with Nkwinika’s expertise.

“This is a great step forward in terms of decolonising the University and creating a multilingual platform for research reporting.  Although SASL is not yet an official 12th language in South Africa, it is considered official for educational purposes in terms of the SA Schools Act. SASL is also constitutionally protected as a language to be developed,” says Morgan.

Nkwinika intends to study for a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) next year at the Wits School of Education so she can use her expertise in SASL as an educator.