The Plights of the Deaf

Published on 21st June 2005

This week, Christabel Obuhatsa who has taught pupils for almost thirty years shares her experience with Josephat Juma of The African Executive. Christabel is a teacher at Agha Khan Deaf Unit. Excerpts:


QUESTION. It is a privilege to meet someone who has deliberately devoted selfless energy to serve the deaf. What led you to develop interest in the deaf?

A. From childhood, I would observe how my deaf friends were struggling to fit into a society that neither understood nor gave them due attention. I asked myself, suppose I was deaf, How would I have loved to be treated? Up to what level would I have loved to interact with the rest of humanity without the hearing impairment? I resolved that one day I would endeavor to make the deaf feel appreciated, develop self worth and live a normal life.

Q. How was your dream realized?

A. After graduating from Mosoriot Teachers Training College, I was posted to St. Mary’s Girls Boarding Primary School in Western Kenya. Just near the school was a facility for the deaf. My youthful passion was rekindled and I longed to reach out to these youth. However, I had no know-how. Around the same time, I heard that Siriba Teachers Training College had begun special classes for ministering to the deaf. I enrolled myself in the college and upon completion of the course was posted to Maseno. The region had several cases of deaf children and a local church had appealed to the Ministry of Education to look into the matter. My mandate was to set up a unit for the deaf. I began this unit alongside another colleague with an initial enrolment of six pupils. We used to conduct lessons in an old abandoned building. The facility currently holds almost two hundred deaf children. My husband got a job in the Eastern Province of Kenya prompting me to seek transfer to join my family. Since there was no unit for the deaf in the new district of residence, I was posted to the Association of the Physically Disabled in Kenya (APDK), a center that hosts pupils with diverse physical challenges but not the deaf. With six other teachers, we carried out a study on sign language in the area consequently founding Machakos School for the Deaf where we were all posted.

Q. What exactly do you do with children having hearing impairments?

A.  My principal task is to make the pupil develop self appreciation and feel normal. Some children are brought to me with no voice. I have to make them realize they have a voice. Some come with limited or no signs at all for expression. I help them develop signs so that they can communicate. I teach them such skills as reading, lip reading and writing.

Q. Is the whole venture purely academic?

A. Not really! Apart from the normal school curriculum, I have the task of discovering what they are good at in fields such as carpentry, metalwork, tailoring, woodwork, typing and so on. I then help them maximize their potential in the areas of capability. I also teach them daily living skills like personal grooming, household chores etc.

Q. Christabel, What makes a child develop hearing impairment?

A.  Hearing impairment occurs in any of the three stages of a child’s development. The first stage is antenatal. If an expectant mother takes drugs such as Fansidar and Quinine without a medical practitioner’s prescription in the first three months of her pregnancy, the child in the womb is likely to develop an auditory impairment. Other causes at this stage are diseases such as German measles and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). Of course deafness can also result from hereditary factors.

The second stage is Prenatal. If a mother labors for too long without delivery, the baby runs short of oxygen. This plunges it into distress consequently making it deaf. Doctors can also harm a baby in the womb by trying to pull it out using forceps in cases where the baby is lying on the side. It happens often that a baby may fall down accidentally at birth hence injuring the ears.

The final stage is postnatal. During a child’s growth, it may be attacked by measles. If not treated in good time, deafness occurs. Moreover, I have witnessed cases where wrong diagnosis has given rise to deafness. Sometimes, a child suffering from meningitis may be put on malaria therapy. If a child’s inflammation of the tonsils is taken for granted, hearing impairment may come about. Such signs as fever should not be overlooked. A child’s ears should be carefully cleaned without using sharp objects to rid them of wax which at times accumulates, hardens up and causes deafness. Medical advice should be sought at all times and as much as possible, children ought to be protected from falling.

Q. What has been the major cause of hearing impairment in the pupils you have interacted with?

A. The final stage.

Q. Have we done enough as a nation to integrate the deaf into the normal pulse of society?

A. I’m afraid not, although I laud efforts by both the public and private initiatives. Several areas need to be addressed nevertheless. To begin with, the curriculum for the deaf in the upper primary (class 7 and 8) is deficient. The books used are far much short of essential sign vocabulary hence making it difficult to teach subjects such as Geography. It forces the teacher to employ total communication that involves miming, acting spelling etc to put across the message.  Words like “climate” and “attorney general” for example are difficult to express. Such difficulties make it hard to convey the intended message in a normal thirty minute lesson.

Then, I am saddened to see the deaf begging in the city streets. Isn’t there a mechanism to usher them in the world of productivity after their course? I remember a pupil of mine who studied, joined a teachers’ training college and graduated. She has never been offered a teaching vacancy to date. When she sought employment in some school for the deaf, it declined to offer her a teaching post but instead reduced her to a sweeper. The society has stigmatized the deaf hence employers are not willing to absorb them.

Even parents don’t know sign language hence it is difficult for the them to participate in their children’s education process and guiding them through adolescence.

Q. The name “Agha Khan” in Kenya is synonymous with wealth, and high class. What is the economic status of the pupils you teach?

A. My school is a mix of the extreme. It has the “able” as well as the most “unable”. A cross section of the parents are absolutely poor hence they cannot support their children adequately. Some parents owe the school over Ksh15,000 in fee areas. In my school, tuition fee is Ksh2,000 per term. This excludes the lunch fee of Ksh55 per day and transport fee of Ksh2,700 per term depending on distance covered. Most parents cannot meet these expenses. It is not unusual to meet pupils who sleep hungry at home and have no money to pay for their lunch.

Q. Can you cite a case in point that has really touched you?

A. Consider Odiero and Elizabeth. The couple has four children. Odiero (the father) is deaf. Elizabeth (the mother) is deaf. Their son, Peter Ouma(my pupil) aged seven, is deaf too. Odiero cannot afford bus fare. He opted to be dropping his son at school on a bicycle. One time they were knocked over by a car for they could not hear it honk. He was working at a local dispensary but lost his job on account of illness. While hospitalized, his family was evicted from their rented house that charges Ksh 3,000 per month, on account of rent non-payment. The man almost got a heart attack on his hospital bed for he could not even meet his medical expenses. I requested my colleagues to raise some funds to meet his medical bills. He still has hardship as far as accommodation is concerned.

Q.A sad case indeed! What do you do with yourself apart from teaching?

A.I am always called upon during the annual Kenya National Music Festivals to adjudicate sign language. I am also called upon in various foras  to interpret. I always organize seminars for the parents of my children to sensitize them on the causes of hearing impairments, how to handle their deaf children and the need to learn sign language. One parent was extremely grateful to learn the cause of her daughter’s deafness. An anonymous Briton sponsored me to present a paper on The Needs of a Pre-school Deaf Child in Arusha (Tanzania).I have also presented a paper on The Need for Special Education to the education taskforce on special education. I always interpret for the deaf in our church every Sunday.

Q. Are you paid for all this?

A. For the Music Festival, Yes. For others, No.

Q. Any message to the stakeholders?

A. The public, including the parents ought to study sign language and value the deaf. The government should create a slot for the low achievers. There is need to economically empower poor families to enable them take care of their deaf children. The TV media ought to include interpreters in their broadcasts. Imagine how the deaf feel, watching programs they can not comprehend. This keeps them guessing and often guess incorrectly hence making them frustrated. If you don’t get what I mean, just watch your TV in a mute position, the whole day. There is need for more interpreters for the deaf in the country and frequent local and regional meetings of teachers for the deaf to share unique issues arising from their interaction with the deaf.

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