A Voice Not Heard: Uganda's Deaf Children - HHF-Africa Journal Part 4

10:00 AM Posted by Humanity Healing International

"The greatest handicap is in the mind."
~ Ssemigga Emmanuel

One of the aspects of my recent trip to Uganda that was really amazing was the way I was led to new connections and situations.  I would be working in one area and a door to another would open.  Perhaps the best example of this is the Uganda School for the Deaf.  I was sitting in the waiting room of the Uganda Broadcasting Company, waiting for a CD of the interview I had just finished so I could share it with the HH community, when I chanced to overhear two men: Ssemigga Emmanuel , a radio broadcaster with a program raising awareness about issues involving persons with disabilities, and Onyango Benard , an instructor at the Uganda School for the Deaf.  The next thing you know, we are exchanging information about societal differences in relation to handicap issues.  When I mentioned that my "foster sister" Robin Chickering (technically my first-cousin-once-removed-in-law) is a teacher for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for the Special School District of St. Louis County, MO they decided I was "one of the family".

And so I was invited to the Uganda School for the Deaf.

The need for educational opportunities is great for all Ugandan children, but deaf children face even greater challenges.  Disabilities carry a social stigma and cultural discrimination that has been difficult to change:  many deaf children are considered too much trouble to educate.  Often they are kept at home and given the most menial labor in exchange for their upkeep.  In addition, facilities and resources to help the deaf are scarce.  The Uganda School for the Deaf is one of only six primary schools for the deaf in Uganda.  Its enrollment is 207 students.  The last census counted over 4,000 deaf children who are not in school.

The school enrolls children through the equivalent of Grade 8 in the US, the highest level of education guaranteed by the Uganda government.  In addition, they start with a year of preschool where children and their caregiver are taught the basics of communication.  It is from this class that the students of USD are chosen.  Like the other schools in Uganda, school is year-round with three terms of 3 ½ months each.  USD is also a boarding school.  There are currently 105 boys and 102 girls, with 10 children having multiple disabilities.  In addition, the school has some vocational training programs, such as carpentry, to teach basic trade skills.

This is required because the current National Primary Leaving Examinations (which must be passed to be given the opportunity to continue one's education) demand that the Deaf be fluent in English before they are graded in a given subject - a situation which ignores the fact that learning any second language is influenced by one's mother tongue.  As a result, the majority of Deaf adolescents end up failing exams and are unable to continue schooling.

The children at USD are just like all of the other children I saw in Uganda.  They are open, curious, and quick to laugh and smile.  A Mzomu (white person) on the school grounds was a curiosity to be explored and we soon found ourselves surrounded by excited children who wanted to communicate with us.  Despite Robin's many attempts to teach me better, my attempt at sign language (the only letters I know spell the phrase "I love you") was met by laughter and cheers and a furious barrage of corrections.  The children are more tactile than others and soon I had children holding onto my arms to get my attention - a situation that brings much joy but does make it difficult to take pictures.

At first glance, the USD appears to be in better shape than most schools I toured in Uganda.  The buildings were fully constructed with windows and cement floors.  The dorms have bunk beds and mosquito netting.  But that is where the advantages end.  Teaching deaf children is obviously more intensive than non-deaf children.  They require more one-on-one involvement with the teachers.  There is a drastic need of additional teaching materials.  A volunteer teacher from the UK we met, Genevieve Gardner, is working with the blind-deaf and told us that they cannot even teach rudimentary Braille as there is no machine and no basic teaching materials that are taken for granted in the West.  Despite the challenges faced, the dedicated teachers are committed to keeping the children's education moving forward.

As an interesting fact, I did learn that there is a Ugandan sign language that is a combination of others.  At the school, they do encourage one-handed communication.

The future of the Uganda School for the Deaf is in jeopardy.  Its biggest sponsor is withdrawing due to funding issues.  Although their sponsor built the current school and the dorms, it does not pay the modest school fees for the children.  The government pays the salary of 18 teachers, but not the supporting personnel or for the children.  The cost per year of a child to attend school, including room and board, is approximately $318.  These school fees comprise approximately 73% of the schools budget.  If you do the math, you will calculate that the operating budget is approximately $90,000.  Can you imagine any school in the West, much less a Special Needs School, operating with a budget this small?

The Uganda School for the Deaf is doing what it can to defray expenses.  They have planted a small orchard with 60 banana trees, they have poultry for eggs, 5 cows for milk and they collect rainwater to cut their monthly water bill.  They even have sold ad space on their school sign.  But it is not enough.

Humanity Healing is working to connect schools like this one with schools, churches and organizations in the West to help provide the children of Uganda the tools and resources they need to develop their full potential.  Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting schools in the Educational Empowerment section of our website.  If you are touched by the stories of these children and have the compassion to help, please contact us to learn more. 

by Christopher Buck

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  1. Hope for the Deaf School said...

    Thanks for sharing this story! I am teacher of deaf and hard of hearing students here in the States but also work with a school in Liberia. So many similar problems, including stigma of deafness in society in general. The Liberian government still isn't in position to provide for special education at all. I'll be making my second trip to work for the Hope School this summer.

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