2001• Health Award

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Robyn Lewis, the recipient of this years Health Award, has devoted her life to the welfare of deaf children, through therapy, through education, and through teaching of others.

As the only speech therapist in East London for 18 years Ms. Lewis treated everything from stuttering to laryngectomy. Faced with problems, she innovated; faced with shortages, she made do; faced with lack of equipment, she used whatever she had at hand. She co-founded the East London Deaf Association, which she notes, for years was funded by taking money off their golf friends on weekends. The father of one of her first patients is still running the association, at the age of 82.

In Mdantsane, where she worked for 15 years, she opened the first pre-school for deaf children in South Africa. She describes her time here: “I trained a wonderful teacher, Andy Maselwa and we worked hand in hand and she remained as principle for 25 years. Andy and I tested the hearing of regular school kids – no audiometer – we used a shoe box of musical toys – and wrote to the government begging for medial help for the innumerable kids with chronic otitis media (middle ear infection).”

Moving to Johannesburg she opened the Lenasia School for the Deaf. Again she trained her assistant, this time, Ms. Bella Ram. Ms. Lewis notes what an interesting school this was, given the racial climate in South Africa in the mid-seventies: besides herself, “this Jewish speech therapist, my beloved Bella – Hindu. We were given the Moslem religious centre in Cuckoo Street for our school.

A retired nun, Sister Loyola, came to help us, and our combi driver and education assistant was a black lady!” A wonderful example of cross-cultural devotion to a worthy cause.

As her career progressed, Ms. Lewis returned to the University of Witswatersrand and the Department of Speech Pathology creating a program for pre-school deaf and language impaired children. She stayed for 25 years. From bare beginnings – little funding, no furniture – it now flourishes, with a staff of 22 highly trained multi-discipline professionals.

It now functions as a demonstration unit, training students, doing research, providing training courses for community members, and bringing in teachers and other professionals to work with the diverse young deaf populations. Always looking to extend her aid into the community, she help found the Soweto School for the Deaf and worked in Dobsonville with the Brothers of Charity. She also went to the Eastern Transvaal to the Wits rural campus to train community health workers to assess and teach deaf children.

And, of course, there were the innumerable political issues involved. She fought the government to open special classes for hard of hearing students in regular schools, fervently believing that deaf children had to be separate.

She was successful in establishing the first such unit in McCauley School, enabling all the multiracial children from the various classes to be together. Another issues was sign language.

White deaf children were not allowed to sign – black children were. Always ready to learn, Ms. Lewis studied the linguistics of signing at Gallaudet University in the United States and then fought until the South African Human Science Research Council would provide an appropriate platform.

As she remembers, “We thumbed our noses at the government and started using sign support at the Units and made a video that parents could use to learn some signs” at home.

And now, mandatorily retired from her position of speech pathologist with a Toronto school board, Ms. Lewis has begun a new career, lecturing at York University to teachers of the deaf, assessing pre-school children, doing speech therapy, working for mandatory testing of newborns, and recently qualified as an auditory - verbal therapist.

South African Women for Women is proud to recognize the lifelong contributions of Robyn Lewis to the health and well-being of children in South Africa and Canada. She is a marvel and an inspiration to us all.