This article has been published in Enabling Education 14
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Title: Enabling Deaf Young People from the Streets and Slums of Nairobi, Kenya, to Access Education
Author: Musau, R
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2010

Enabling deaf young people from the streets and slums of Nairobi, Kenya, to access education

Richard Musau

The Undugu Society of Kenya (USK) has been empowering deaf children and young people from the slums and streets of Nairobi since 2008 – so far, 200 have benefitted. USK also lobbies policy-makers to take up the deaf agenda. Deaf awareness forums take place at both community and national level. They aim to reduce stigma and stereotyping in families and communities, as many people still consider disability a curse. Here Richard describes the way USK works.

Identifying deaf children and working with families
Street associations and community-based organisations, trained by USK, help to identify deaf young people in the community. Where possible, those living on the streets are reintegrated into their family homes and placed in regular schools near where they live. Very young children who do not know any Kenya Sign Language (KSL) are placed in a pre-school where they concentrate on learning KSL, taught by indigenous KSL signers. After that, they move to mainstream primary schools. Older children who cannot return to their families for various reasons and who are earning money (e.g., through car washing) are encouraged to join USK street associations. They participate in capacitybuilding workshops and gain independent living skills.

KSL trainers, provided by USK, work intensively with families of deaf young people. They teach the whole family KSL so that a deaf family member can be included in all household activities. Incomegenerating opportunities are also provided by USK to the most needy parents, some of whom may be living on as little as US$1 to 2 per day.

Establishing units
There is no special school for deaf children in Nairobi, which has a population of over four million. Therefore, USK works with the local government to establish education units within mainstream primary schools, which deaf children and young people from the Nairobi slums can attend. Initially there were five units for deaf children and USK’s project has established two further units. One is already operating in Korogocho (Nairobi’s third largest slum), while students are still being recruited for the other. It is estimated that 4% of deaf children in Kenya attend school.1

When its units are being created, USK sponsors volunteer teachers to get the units up and running straight away, while waiting for a government sponsored teacher to be recruited. Thus, deaf children are not left in the school without a teacher who can communicate with them. If we wait for the teacher to be recruited first, then the unit might never be created.

USK has conducted a deaf awareness day in the Korogocho school’s unit and helped to build the capacity of teachers to accept deaf children. Teachers and deaf students in the USK-founded unit carry out exchange activities with another school – usually Joseph Kang’ethe Primary School in Nairobi city, which has a well-established unit with over 40 children and more experienced teachers.

The units set up by USK are partitioned classrooms containing different classes. Class 1 is in one corner, class 2 in another, and classes 3 and 4 sit in the other corners. Another similar classroom caters for children in classes 5 to 8. Students who progress well may be placed in a mainstream class within the school. There, the deaf student may have to help their hearing peers and their class teacher learn to sign. The ‘desk mates’ of deaf children usually become fluent enough to interpret during lessons.

As a result of this project, deaf children and young people:

  • benefit from free and compulsory primary education and learn with their peers
  • learn to advocate for their rights at an early age
  • stay at home with their families – not in expensive residential schools for the deaf
  • learn how to integrate through signing and lipreading
  • teach their friends and teachers how to sign.

Skills training
Young people, aged 17 to 25 years old, are placed with local artisans. They receive skills training for 6 to 12 months depending on the course. Sometimes the skills trainer does not know KSL, so volunteer KSL interpreters help during theory classes. Some skills trainers informally learn KSL through their exposure to the interpreters – they are a great asset to the project as they are keen to take on more trainees.

Richard Musau
Project Manager
Undugu Society of Kenya
P.O. Box 40417-100100
Nairobi, Kenya

1 Deaf Child Worldwide internal report 2009.

Richard is a Deaf young man who was born and educated in Kenya, and has a degree in Economics and Sociology. He is a disability and development consultant, and is an adviser to the Board of the Kenya National Association of the Deaf.

The deaf dilemma – an editor’s note

In this newsletter we have three articles that mention the education of deaf children in units attached to regular schools (pages 24-29). The units have been developed in response to deaf children’s right to access free, compulsory education, and in the absence of any schools for deaf children.

Specialist international agencies have often supported residential schools for deaf children, far from the children’s families and communities. However, less than 10% of deaf children attend such schools in sub-Saharan Africa, so the trend is towards developing units attached to mainstream schools, so that more deaf children can access education.

Education is about quality as well as access. Quality cannot be guaranteed in any educational setting, but it can be harder to achieve in a multi-grade class where Sign Language is the medium of instruction. It can take a long time for a teacher to become sufficiently competent in Sign Language to be able to teach deaf children from grades 1 to 6 in the same classroom, without having access to colleagues in the school who can share similar skills and experiences. Involving Deaf adults who know Sign Language in the education of deaf children is therefore vital.

The idea of creating specialist units attached to mainstream schools originated in Northern countries. However, financial constraints and a shortage of specially qualified teachers, mean that units have developed quite differently in Southern countries. There is usually no additional support available (from speech therapists, educational psychologists, etc), as there is in the North. In sub-Saharan Africa a unit usually means that a space has been provided, along with a teacher trained in special education. But nothing more! The main benefit of such units is the smaller class size than the rest of the school, so there is greater teacher-pupil interaction.

However, units can fall into the trap of becoming mini-special schools, operating separately from the mainstream schools to which they are physically attached. Units therefore risk perpetuating the social exclusion of deaf learners while potentially also offering a second-rate education. The alternative is to include deaf children in large regular classes taught by teachers with limited awareness – an approach that is also full of difficulties.

In the Kenyan example (above) efforts have been made to ensure high quality Sign Language instruction in the home, the classroom and the workplace. In addition, deaf students can transfer to the mainstream school in which the unit is situated. In the Bushenyi, Uganda, article (pages 28-29), parents have been learning Sign Language, and the project has tackled negative attitudes in the community. Both these initiatives suggest an approach beyond simply ‘units for deaf children’. They represent a holistic, childcentred approach to education, which includes families, communities, mainstream schools and governments in the process.

The situation for deaf learners is not static. I am confident that more inclusive forms of education will develop, as Sign Language competence increases and more Deaf adults become involved in education at all levels.

Susie Miles