Scafe and the Jamaican Sign Language (JSL)
Tiffany Scafe, 22, is the daughter of two deaf parents, Everton Scafe and the late Georgia Spencer. Scafe is not deaf; neither are her two sisters and one brother.
“It’s rare that deafness is genetic,” Scafe said. But deafness was prevalent in Jamaica, especially in children from parents who were born in the mid-twentieth century. “In Jamaica, there is a theory for the reason of the high rate of deaf babies born in the ‘50s through the ‘80s. It’s because of our healthcare.”
The increased numbers of deaf children coincided with Jamaica gaining their independence from Great Britain in 1962, according to Scafe. There was a learning curve.
“My stepmom [Janet Scafe] became deaf because of a high fever at birth. My dad actually lost his hearing when he was five years old. My mom also lost her hearing when she was young,” Scafe said.
According to Scafe, when missionaries arrived in the early to mid-1900s, they brought with them either British Sign Language (BSL) or American Sign Language (ASL). Both BSL and ASL mixed with the already existing Country Sign, “which is like the native sign language,” Scafe said, to create what is today described as Jamaican Sign Language (JSL).
The only real difference between JSL and ASL is vocabulary use, “not in terms of syntax or structure,” Scafe said.
Compared to American Sign Language, however, “JSL is very understudied. I guess it’s just because of a lack of exposure. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in learning Jamaican Sign,” Scafe said.
JSL, Scafe’s first language learned, was cultivated in the small deaf community that her family immersed themselves in. Her stepmom taught at a deaf school, the family attended a deaf church and events that would facilitate the deaf. “I didn’t like to venture outside of that, to be honest,” Scafe said.
As a kid, Scafe was reserved and shy, embarrassed to divulge, to be herself, to an outsider. “I was more comfortable using sign language so I wasn’t very expressive vocally,” Scafe said.
Jamaican culture has words for people who are not loud. “[You get called] dark for behaving like you have no sense if you’re too reserved,” Scafe said. Her reticence did not abate until early high school.
Scafe is from hilly Mandeville, Jamaica, the largest town and capital in the parish of Manchester. “It’s known for having the oldest golf course in the Western Hemisphere outside of Europe,” Scafe said, about the Manchester Golf Club, established in 1868.
If Jamaica has a population of about 2.7 million, Scafe guesses the deaf community totals around 2,000 individuals. Enrollment is falling at the deaf school where her stepmom’s teaches. “Maybe it’s better health care or [maybe] not a lot of parents are coming forth with their kids. [There’s] still a lot of stigma attached to being deaf or having disability in Jamaica.”
Scafe came to the United States because she wanted to be an ASL interpreter and picked cost-effective IPFW (over Ball State and IUPUI) because of how close knit the campus felt when she visited. The plan was to take what was learned and apply it where it was needed. “I feel like I’m naturally drawn to languages,” Scafe said.
But she changed her major to Psychology. “There are so many mental health issues in the deaf community. My dad has friends who struggled with mental health issues, and it’s always just blamed on their deafness.” Scafe, soon to be a senior with plans to attend graduate school, wants to be a Cognitive Development psychologist, to study language development for CODA (Child of Deaf Adults).
Scafe is excited. “They’re working on an actual JSL dictionary, and I’m privledged to know two of people working on it,” Scafe said. “A lot of the dictionaries we use in Jamaica are ASL. It’s been a long process.”