Maureen Aoko teaches sign language to deaf children who attend the primary school in Baba Dogo, an informal settlement about nine kilometers northeast of Nairobi.
Learning sign language is vital for these children. It allows them to communicate with each other, have access to education, and have a fighting chance to get into the workplace when they leave school.
But at Baba Dogo, problems remain. With over 2,000 children at the school, only a tiny minority learn sign language. The rest of the school’s hearing children don’t have the opportunity. This means that even with crucial language skills, the deaf children at Baba Dogo can be cut off and isolated from wider society.
Kenya’s government steps in
Six years ago the Kenyan government embarked on a wholesale review of its basic education curriculum. The education ministry worked with civil society groups and NGOs – including Deaf Child Worldwide and VSO - to make sure the review would include a special focus on adapting the new curriculum to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
The outcome was an incredible commitment to making Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) part of the curriculum for all students whether they are deaf or not.
The Kenyan government are going to be piloting this new curriculum in 470 schools across all regions of Kenya. During this 3-month pilot, many schools will be starting to introduce KSL lessons to deaf and hearing students. This is the first step in the road towards more inclusion for the deaf community in Kenya.
If this pilot is a success, plans are being worked on to see how all schools can have the opportunity to teach KSL, and for how students could sit exams using sign language, and not just English and Swahili.
Teaching sign language to all hearing as well as deaf children at school is a remarkable leap forward, especially as the government only recognised KSL six years ago. As someone who is deaf, I think this is a fantastic achievement because it recognizes the principle of inclusion for all.
It’s based on adapting the system to remove the barriers faced by deaf children, rather than expecting deaf children to adapt at all times to a hearing world. In Kenya for example, it is impossible for the vast majority of low-income families to obtain and maintain good quality hearing aids for their deaf children, so widespread knowledge of even the most basic sign language will be transformative for many.
With more than one in seven of Kenya’s children and young people being disabled, it is hoped that these reforms will help to make education more accessible to the 16% of disabled children in Kenya who do not currently attend school.
Maureen Aoko, who is deaf, told me she thinks children find it easy to learn KSL. Many hearing children love sign language, and my own experience is that most want to learn how to sign the moment they see deaf children using the language.
Poetry in motion
Baba Dogo now has a sign language club in the school, with 24 hearing and 20 deaf children taking part. When I visited, hearing members presented a sign language poem and said that in the future they want to help interpret at church and interpret what’s on TV so their deaf friends can feel more included.
Many of the school’s hearing pupils also said they have made friends with deaf children for the first time, and want to continue to support their deaf classmates however they can. This is a huge step towards better inclusion as the non-deaf members of the signing club now bridge the communication gap in the playground and tackle the isolation that is so prevalent in the deaf community.
Need for more KSL teachers
Kenya’s Institute of Curriculum Development has developed several books to be used for teaching sign language in schools, and many teachers have now completed sign language training.
But the challenge for the future will be ensuring that enough teachers are trained to a high enough standard to deliver good quality sign language lessons.
Another is the limited KSL vocabulary, so the government needs to do more work to strengthen the language.
But at Baba Dogo the benefits are already being seen. Deaf children feel more included and involved. Deaf students are proud to be able to sign, and it will be exciting to see how future developments like taking exams in sign language will work. These reforms are an important step forward for the disability rights agenda, but also for ensuring a brighter future for deaf children across Kenya.