The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that currently, 466 million people live with a hearing disability. This number is predicted to increase substantially in the coming years. WHO forecasts that by 2050, around 900 million people will be diagnosed with a hearing disability. Hearing loss can come as a result of many medical issues, such as overexposure to loud noise, ear infections, ototoxicity from medications and other general infections to the body. However, experts believe that the rise in hearing-impaired disabilities results from aging populations instead of infections. Deaf people in sub-Saharan Africa are no exception to this trend.
WHO reports that sub-Saharan Africa is one of the regions most affected by hearing-impaired disabilities, with four times more cases than high-income countries. In the past, Deaf people in sub-Saharan Africa have lacked equal opportunity to participate in society, particularly in education and employment. Thankfully, multiple countries are taking steps to improve the lives of Deaf people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Uganda’s 1995 constitution prohibits discrimination based on disability. Uganda is also one of only a few countries to recognize Sign Language in its constitution. To further support citizens with a disability, the country passed The Persons with Disabilities Act. This law protects those with disabilities and provides a 15% tax reduction for private employers who have 10 or more persons with a disability on their full-time payroll.
Gallaudet University, the leading private university to educate Deaf and hard of hearing students, reports multiple Deaf organizations in Uganda. These include Deaf Link Uganda, an organization that financially supports Deaf entrepreneurs and business owners who struggle with socio-economic equality. Additionally, SignHealth Uganda is an NGO that works to provide equitable and necessary social services for Deaf men, women and children.
Following Uganda’s lead, other countries have begun to adopt anti-discrimination laws to protect Deaf people. For example, shortly after the passing of the Ugandan legislation, Togo drafted government regulations that prevent disability discrimination and promise to provide training, rehabilitation, counseling and employment to all who qualify. Togo now also recognizes Sign Language as the official language of Deaf people and has created a governmental committee that will consider Deaf and hearing-impaired disability aid during policy development.
In South Africa, the population of Deaf and hard of hearing citizens reaches around 4 million. Like Uganda, South Africa also has anti-discrimination policies in place to protect those with a disability. South Africa mandates that a Sign Language interpreter be available for major events to ensure that communication accommodations are provided to all. Deaf culture is rather established in this country due to its prioritization of awareness and equity. Established as a National Language Unit in 2001, South African Sign Language (SASL) is the household language chosen by Deaf people in the region.
Naming September the National Month of Deaf People, South Africa has made it a priority that Deaf people be given the same opportunities and advantages as any other person, especially in education. The South African sector of the National Institute for the Deaf offers students the ability to gain workforce experience and interact with people of their culture in a new environment through student internships and practical work. Additionally, the Carel du Toit Center, a school in Cape Town, offers the Children Hear and Talk (CHAT) program, which acts as an early intervention method. The school offers weekly sessions for parents to discuss language exposure in everyday life, as well as sessions for younger children to get a head start on their education. Carel du Toit employs more than 60 professionals to work with students on speech training and communication in a natural setting.
South Africa has also made progress in technological advancements aimed at helping Deaf and hard-of-hearing people. In 2019, South African medical specialist Mashudu Tshifularo completed the first-ever successful middle-ear transplant using a 3-D printer. This breakthrough could prove to be a long-term solution for damage-caused deafness. Tshifularo’s procedure will be safe for people of all ages, including newborns. The minister of South Africa’s Department of Health stated that Tshifularo will “get all the help he needs” moving forward in this positive development for Deaf people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Nigeria has focused on educational improvements in supporting its Deaf citizens. The Total Communication method, implemented by the Hands and Voices organization in Nigeria, is a Deaf and hard of hearing instructional approach that provides each student with a range of nonverbal communication tools. The Total Communication program works to offer communication options to allow language development for every child’s specific needs. Paralinguistics presented through the Total Communication method include formal sign language as well as finger-spelling, body language, natural gestures and facial expressions that can then be paired with spoken language comprehension if the child or parent so chooses. This program has become the primary mode of instruction for Deaf students in Nigeria.
Like South Africa, Nigeria offers Deaf students real-world learning opportunities and internships in preparation for life after school. Ibadan University in Nigeria was the first to create a Department of Special Education, while Jos University offers high-quality training for educators of the Deaf. Both universities recognize two languages for Deaf people in Nigeria, Hausa and Yoruba, both of which are the established sign languages in their respective regions.
Of the 10% of Kenyans who have a disability, 3 million struggle with unemployment. Thankfully, workplace equality for the Deaf people of Kenya has grown substantially in the past decade. Kenya’s Disability Act of 2003 requires 5% of jobs to be given to citizens with a disability. Recognizing the stigma against hiring a Deaf person, the Pallet Cafe in Nairobi exclusively hires Deaf wait staff. Each server wears a shirt with #IamDeaf on the back and works with customers through sign language or other methods of nonverbal communication. The Pallet Cafe allows its Deaf waiters to be comfortably integrated into society by interacting with non-disabled people and helping them find empowerment in their employment.
To promote accessibility for its Deaf citizens, Kenya’s National Council for People with Disabilities has created a four-year education plan for public sector workers to learn and understand sign language. Kenya’s National Association of the Deaf aids Deaf Kenyans through rehabilitation, accessibility, training and employment. Unlike some other countries, however, Kenya has also taken physical action to address the needs of citizens with a disability by leveling pavements and ensuring accessibility to elevators and restrooms. In this way, Kenya supports the lives of Deaf people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Part of further efforts to diminish the stigma around Deaf and hard of hearing people, the documentary “Deaf Role Models in Africa” was created in 2014. The documentary highlights Deaf Kenyans’ accomplishments to prove that children with disabilities have the same intellect and potential as children without a disability. The short film discusses the need for a proper and well-funded education so that Deaf and hard of hearing children can succeed in their adult lives and continue to contribute to their country in new and inspiring ways.
Progress in opportunities and education for Deaf people in sub-Saharan Africa may have been slow-moving in the past, but these countries are working hard to make sure their citizens with disabilities are represented and supported. These positive developments for Deaf people in Sub-Saharan Africa go beyond just accessibility in the workforce by promoting integration into a stigma-free society.
– Alexa Tironi