Bill to pave way for sign language use in schools

Monday, September 23rd, 2019 00:00 |
Paul Musyoka and Elizabeth Wambui with their daughters. They are among sign languages users in Kenya. PD/John Ochieng

Grace Wachira and Evelyn Makena

‘I needed someone who could understand my language’ may seem like any other phrase for most people, but for Paul Musyoka and Elizabeth Wambui, it is the essence of their existence. 

The two are hearing impaired, married and parents to two abled children. Their journey was not as smooth, and as Elizabeth says, even her mother wanted someone abled and well off to marry her. 

But once they settled into marriage with Paul, she has been supportive, even helping them raise their abled children. 

“I remember we got a lot of help from Paul’s sister–in-law because she works at the hospital otherwise, we had already faced numerous communication challenges,” Elizabeth recalled.

All their communication in the hospital was in writing because none of them knew how to sign. Sometimes, a doctor would volunteer to take them through all necessary processes from the triage to the pharmacy.

That their daughters were not deaf was exciting. “We were so happy and thanked God that they could hear and talk!

No parent would wish for their children to go through the same challenges they went through; we are no exception,” they said.

From the onset, the Musyokas took it upon themselves to ensure their daughters learnt sign language.

“We taught them sign language because that is how we communicate at home and they did not stigmatise us.

They are all fluent and it has made life bearable because they have helped us where we fail to understand each other even in the society,” they add. 

However, their first-born, who is in grade five, has faced more stigma than her sisters.

“At first, we noticed she was uncomfortable with us around because of the way her schoolmates looked at us while we conversed. She was embarrassed, but with time, she adjusted and we use sign language without the shame,” Elizabeth says.

Entrenched in Constitution

The Musyokas are among an estimated 500,000 sign language users in Kenya.  Besides the challenges in communication, this group faces prejudice, rejection by family and poor access to vital services such as education and health care, despite the fact that the Constitution recognises sign language as an indigenous language and one of the languages of Parliament. 

In Article 54 (1) (d), the Constitution provides for the inclusion of sign language in education curriculum and for its use in legal proceedings.

It also states that a person with any disability is entitled to use of braille, sign language or any other appropriate means of communication.

It also promotes the development and use of sign language and other communication formats and technologies accessible to people with disabilities under Article 7(3).

There have been moves to include sign language in the general public, with the Persons with Disability Act 2003 requiring all television stations to provide “a sign language inset or subtitles in all newscasts and educational programmes, and in all programmes covering events of national significance.”

A bill tabled in the Senate in May this year hopes to bolster the inclusion of hearing impaired people within the society.

The Kenya Sign Language (KSL) Bill 2019 seeks to promote literacy of people with hearing disabilities through adoption of Kenya sign language, help persons hard of hearing integrate into the society and recognise and regulate sign language interpreters.

Mother tongue

“The bill will ensure that sign language is recognised as a medium of communication between deaf and those who are hard of hearing and with other people who have no hearing difficulties.

It will also ensure KSL is used to teach language and other academic subjects and not as a substitute for English or Kiswahili,” says Nominated Senator Isaac Mwaura. 

Tabled in the Senate by Nominated Senator Dr Getrude Musuruve and currently in the second reading, it compels the national and county governments to ensure use of KSL in provision of services and information to the public.

To promote ease of learning, the bill proposes the cabinet secretary for education ensures that learners who are hard of hearing are taught in a language they can understand.

It further proposes that teachers of students with hearing disabilities ensure KSL is taught in sign and not in written form.

Under the bill, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) is to develop, review and approve curriculum and supporting material for learners with hearing disabilities.

It will facilitate the adoption of KSL as the mother tongue of the deaf. The reluctance to adopt KSL as the first language for the deaf denies them an equal opportunity to compete with their hearing counterparts. 

Regulation against quacks

The bill also outlines provisions to regulate sign language interpreters in the country.

“It seeks to standardise sign language interpreters and ensures they are issued with certification so that there are no quacks in the profession,” adds Mwaura. 

To regulate sign language interpreters, the Bill proposes that any person wishing to provide KSL interpretation services apply for registration from the ministry in charge of matters regarding disabilities in accordance with the criteria laid down by the relevant cabinet secretary. 

The cabinet secretary is to develop these procedures and criteria in consultation with representative from a registered association of sign language interpreters.

All the names of the people authorised to offer sign language services will be kept in a register and a certificate valid for one year issued.

The cabinet secretary, in consultation with representative of a registered association of people with hearing disabilities and National Council For Persons With Disabilities, is to develop an action plan six months after the bill becomes an Act to monitor the progress on the implementation of the provisions of the Act.

Additionally, the Bill compels employers to create opportunities for people with hearing disabilities to be eligible for jobs and to promote career progression for such employees and the national and county governments to promote learning of the KSL among those with hearing ability by introducing it as a language subject in the curriculum.

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