Deafness is the most common disability in Uganda, affecting 360,000 under-18s. This year the International Week of the Deaf (19-25 September) is focusing on sign language and equality.
DEAF CHILD Worldwide is working with a network of skilled partners in Uganda to help deaf children to be fully included in their family, education and community life – so that they can do anything other children can do.
Poor communication lies at the heart of the problems deaf young people face.
Growing up deaf means that they miss out on conversations and education about relationships, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases because their peers, teachers, health workers and counsellors are often unable to effectively communicate with them.
As a result, deaf young people are often not aware of when sexual behaviour towards them constitutes abuse, or they may participate because they do not know about the possible consequences.
With AIDS-related illnesses the leading cause of adolescent mortality in Africa, this lack of understanding can be deadly.
The Ugandan government recently undertook a major government campaign to educate teens about sexual health – but as this was mainly through TV adverts, deaf young people missed out on this vital information and advice.
Talking about sex education in her hometown of Jinja, 23-year-old Martha said: “There’s a big problem around family planning. Many deaf don’t use it because they don’t know what it means. They are told to use condoms and given free condoms but they don’t know how to use them. They are told about injections but they think that’s for an immunisation. They say ‘I’ve had my immunisation so it’s OK’ because they don’t realise it’s a different thing. Even teachers in schools don’t have the signs to explain these things, so they can’t help the deaf people to understand.”
Expanding on these issues, 24-year-old Silvia who is deaf said: “Even though we are sexually active, many of us are ignorant about HIV and AIDS. There are many workshops concerning HIV and Aids and people with disabilities are invited. But these are for people with physical disabilities like the blind who go and not the deaf. The deaf aren’t supported to learn in these environments and are excluded.
“The problem going to doctors is communication. Sometimes we go with parents to help, but we have to face fear about talking about these issues in front of parents. It’s hard to go with an interpreter because they want money. You can go with an interpreter but you still don’t understand it. The nurse might say you’re negative but me, I don’t know what that means. Does that mean I’m safe?”
Thinking about why deaf young people struggle more than their hearing peers, 21-year-old Betty said: “Parents don’t advise their deaf children. Only if a mother knows sign language well then they can talk to their daughter about boyfriends, and explain all those types of things. There are workshops and training but these aren’t open to deaf people. We hear there’s an injection that prevents you from getting pregnant but very few of us understand the details. The hearing know about this but we don’t. If you go to hospital and get a blood test, on having the results, they say there is this and this and this. But these are just words on a piece of paper – most deaf people don’t understand what the results mean. If I go with an interpreter it can be very hard, if we don’t want them to know why we are visiting the doctor or we can’t pay for it.”
Deaf Child Worldwide is working with the Uganda National Association of the Deaf to tackle this issue and give deaf young people access to the vital sex education they need to live healthy, independent lives and achieve their potential.
The charity’s Birds and the Bees project takes a ‘peer educator’ approach, giving deaf young people sign language training and teaching them about relationships and sexual health, so that they can establish youth groups and networks in their communities and give advice, counselling and training to other deaf young people.
Innocent, a 25-year-old peer educator with Kampala Youth Group, said: “I always encourage people to get tested for HIV. After training, they’ll come back to ask ‘If I have a problem, where can I go?’ Previously they didn’t care but now they ask for more information. ‘What hospital can I go to? Who can I talk to?’ When I talk to people about these things, they feel better as they know more about how to behave. What I feel is that I’ve brought a change in the community. Most times when I train someone, counsel them, advise them – I notice a change in their lives.”
Another peer educator, 24-year-old Okongo, added: “We worked hard to inspire deaf young people at a school where we were sharing our training. We saw the numbers rising in the club every day. There was a survey in Kampala on HIV and Aids. We saw a large number of deaf youth getting tested – because of the information we had given them, because we told them that you need to go and check your status. We saw a lot of people go for the test and this is a good thing.”
Christine, 21, is a youth leader for Deaf Child Worldwide partner SignHealth in Masaka. Having completed sign language training and sexual health workshops, she uses this knowledge to identify and support local deaf young people.
For example, Christine heard about a local deaf young woman and her baby son who had both been feeling ill. Neither knew sign language so she used informal signs to communicate with them. The woman had been raped and the culprit, the father of her baby, had run away. Christine helped refer them both to hospital, where tests found they were HIV positive. Mother and baby were helped to access medication and support, and Christine still meets with them several times a week to check they are taking their ARV drugs properly and to teach them sign language and communication skills.
Christine explained: “I used the knowledge I learnt from the project on HIV/AIDS to try and help. With support from other peer leaders I helped her access medication and care services. I visit to make sure she takes her drugs on time as her family cannot help much. I know now that, with ARVs, my friend will live well and longer.”
Deaf Child Worldwide also works with parents to improve their deaf awareness and communication skills, and help them understand the rights of their children. The charity also teaches professionals how to support deaf girls and young women who have reported sexual abuse, and lobbies policy-makers and other key decision-makers to ensure deaf girls and young women receive the support and services they need.
Deaf children – the facts* Deaf Child Worldwide is the international arm of the National Deaf Children’s Society, committed to creating a world without barriers for deaf children and young people.
* The charity helps deaf children achieve their full potential by providing practical and emotional support to them and their families
* There are 32 million deaf children in the world. Around 80 per cent of these live in developing countries.
* Current production of hearing aids meets less than 10 per cent of global need, so access to sign language is vital to ensure deaf children do not become isolated.
* Deaf children in developing countries are less likely to go to school or complete their education. Deafness is not a learning disability – given the right support, deaf children can do anything other children can.
* Deaf children are more than twice as likely to be abused as other children.
* In some countries there is a belief that a child with a disability is a ‘punishment’ imposed on a family for past mistakes. The resulting shame and stigma mean deaf children are often hidden away and excluded. It is important to raise awareness of deafness so that deaf people can participate fully in society.