Hearing impairment didn’t silence my goals

Tuesday, August 4th, 2020 00:00 |
Winnie Atieno lost her hearing ability at the age of 12. Photo/PD/MILLIAM MURIGI

Milliam Murigi @millymur1

Winnie Atieno Otieno was born a healthy baby 36 years ago. She was a bubbly and charming girl full of energy, which made her a darling to many.

However, when she turned 12, she came down with Malaria and two weeks of treatment on quinine drip saw things change from bad to worse.

By the time she was leaving hospital, her status had changed from a normal child to a special one.

She had lost not only her hearing ability, but also her speech was slurred. 

“This was a challenging moment for my family. My mother could not accept that I had gotten a disability.

She took me to various hospitals and more check-ups were done, to no avail.

The final options given were either I undergo a corrective surgery or use hearing devices,” recalls the second born in a family of five.

As a family, they settled on hearing devices. However, after using the devices for a while, Winnie realised that they were not of much help and discarded them. She accepted her fate. 

Done with seeking treatment, it was time for her to go back to school. The biggest dilemma was whether to go back to her former school or enroll at a special school? She opted for the former.

Her mother granted her wish and she went back to Class Six at Mukumu Girls’ Boarding Primary School, Kakamega.

Learning ‘normally’

“I chose a normal school because I didn’t want to lose the circle of friends I already had. I also didn’t like starting this ‘strange’ way of life in a new environment,” Winnie says.

Though life was not the same again at school, she says it wouldn’t have been better elsewhere. She had a few dedicated friends and soon she gelled into her new life.

Her teachers were supportive, always positioning her at the front desks because she relied on lip reading. 

“I sat for my Kenya Certificate for Primary Education (KCPE) and got admitted at Goibei Girls High School in Vihiga for my secondary education.

Here, all it took me was to get a good desk mate whose notes I would copy after class. This gave me ample time to follow the teachers’ lips.

Despite my hearing impairment, I was in active co-curricular activities and represented both my primary school and secondary schools during the Kenya Music and Drama Festivals in traditional dance category.

After four years, I sat for my Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 2004 and passed,” she adds.

All along, Winnie had promised herself not to let her condition put her down. She enrolled for a diploma in pharmacy at Tracom College, Nakuru.

However, since no one is allocated a specific sitting position in colleges, Winnie’s would only attend lessons when she got a front seat.

This only accounted for 30 per cent of her class time. She used to spend a lot of her time in the library reading by herself.

Later, she would compare notes with friends. Despite these challenges, she passed all her examinations.

Never say die

“I opted to study a course in pharmacy because I got to know that my condition was as a result of a pharmaceutical error. I didn’t want anybody else to suffer my fate,” Winnie says.

After college, she had to sit for a professional examinations administered by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board.

Here, it was a different field altogether. Since she couldn’t hear instructions, she started her exams when a lot of time had passed.

She couldn’t finish her tests on time, hence she failed. She re-enrolled and failed in 2013 and 2014. 

After the third attempt, she was so discouraged that she wanted to give up. Still, she booked the November 2015 exams.

Then she boldly explained her case to one of the examiners and requested that she be given time reminders after every 30 minutes.

“This worked for me. I passed. I booked for Level 2 exams in 2016, which I failed because of orals.

I wrote to and explained my case to the board requesting that I be tested in written instead.

This, I was granted and sat for the exams in November 2017. I passed and hence became a pharmaceutical technologist,” Winnie explains.

Armed with her certificates and with a lot of enthusiasm, she started looking for a job.

She knocked onto several doors unsuccessfully. She wanted to prove to the world and herself that indeed with self-drive and trust in God, no mountain is insurmountable.

However, after several failed applications, it dawned on Winnie that many employers were stereotypical.

They couldn’t understand how a deaf person could serve the customers. “This was another turning point in my life.

I had only two options—chart my own way or continue crying over lack of opportunities. I resolved to venture into self-employment.

I approached my elder sister, Wonder Awuor and my aunt Grace Oketch and they agreed to help.

In their small ways, they gave me starting capital. That is how Winnheal pharmacy was born in 2018.

Forging ahead

Though this was a new territory for her, hope, determination and faith gave her the strength to push on.

“For a long time, my customers could not tell I have a hearing disability. I keenly lip-read and continuously take notes.

Where I am in doubt, I encourage them to write down and I advise accordingly.

This has earned me a lot of respect and trust from my clients. So far, I believe I have made a difference,” she says. 

Despite her breakthrough in the industry, Winnie says that communication has always been a challenge since she joined the industry without sign language skills.

However, she got a scholarship from National Council for Persons with Disability to study sign language at Kenya Institute of Special Education.

“My future plans is to further my education to a degree level. I would also like to work with Kenya Medical Research Institute or Kenya Medical Supplies Agency as this, I believe, would help me further my skills as I also serve my country,” she says.

Additionally, Winnie hopes to grow her business and employ more people living with disability.

She further wants to establish a wing that specifically caters for customers with disability, be able to support other person’s with disability study medicine and eventually influence policy on education, especially pharmacy so that the curriculum favours people living with disability both in training as well as in practice.

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