Nicaraguans with Disabilities

After seven years in Granada, Nicaragua, this January, the Cafe de las Sonrisas set up shop in the capital city of Managua. Also known as the “Cafe of Smiles, ” the little restaurant was a popular tourist destination in Granada, partly because of its atmosphere but also its unique staff of Nicaraguans with disabilities. Customers sat down to lunch in a large, airy room with hammocks hanging from the ceiling—courtesy of the hammock factory next door.

The menu presents simple Nicaraguan meals in Spanish and sign language. Posters on the walls also display some words in sign language customers might need to know: hello, goodbye, yes, no and thank you. Aside from an interesting lesson in linguistics, these posters provide a means of communicating with the cafe’s staff, all of whom are deaf and/or mute. That’s where the Cafe de las Sonrisas gets its name, according to the owner. In the absence of the spoken word, the main language of the restaurant is sign language and smiles.

Founding the Tio Antonio Social Center

The cafe—the first cafe in the Americas to employ only people who deaf and/or mute—is the brainchild of Antonio Prieto Brunel, also known as Tio Antonio. A native of Spain, Brunel moved to Nicaragua 13 years ago. After seeing the predicament of people who are deaf in Nicaragua, Brunel set out to make a difference.

As a result, he built the Tio Antonio Social Center, a nongovernmental organization that provides employment for people with disabilities. The Social Center also consists of a hammock shop, which employs young people with various disabilities. Meanwhile, the other half of the Social Center is the Cafe de las Sonrisas.

Living with Disabilities in Nicaragua

For people like the hammock makers and cafe staff, such opportunities are hard to come by. Nicaragua has always been a difficult place for people with disabilities. As recently as the 2000s, people with disabilities were treated as less than human, both by society and their families. Many were hidden from the public by their families for the majority of their lives. And, the abuse of people with disabilities was swept under the rug. In some cases, people with physical or intellectual disabilities were even kept in cages. While such abuses are almost unheard of now, there are stories of people with disabilities being kept in cages from less than 20 years ago.

To make matters worse, Nicaraguans with disabilities lacked access to any sort of public support system. Such a system would allow them to adapt to society or advocate for themselves. Instead, in the 1980s, the first schools for people who are deaf in Nicaragua were built. Before that, many Nicaraguans who are deaf lived in isolation. This was not only due to societal stigma but also the lack of community. In fact, Nicaraguan Sign Language was not developed until the schools began bringing children who are deaf together.

Improving Circumstances in Nicaragua

Since then, social progress for people with disabilities in Nicaragua has been slow but steady. While the government has built “special schools” for children with disabilities, these schools are chronically underfunded and understaffed. In addition, youth with disabilities frequently lack social support from their families. Seventy percent of children with disabilities in Nicaragua grow up without their fathers. Frequently, the birth of a child with disabilities results in the father abandoning the family. In addition, due to the stigma surrounding disability, 90 percent of Nicaraguans with disabilities are unemployed.

Without employment, many adults with disabilities are forced to depend on their families for most of their lives. Those without families, or without family members willing to support a relative with disabilities, often end up on the streets.

Employing Nicaraguans with Disabilities

Thanks to the hammock factory and the cafe, Brunel’s employees have been able to avoid such fate. Along with providing employment, the Tio Antonio Social Center prepares its workers for other jobs by teaching them career skills. Ultimately, its goal is to allow the Nicaraguan youth with disabilities to have the freedom that older generations with disabilities were denied. Equipped with gainful employment and career skills, Brunel’s employees have the opportunity to support themselves, which means that they can avoid being dependent on their families like many Nicaraguans with disabilities.

Plus, the Cafe de las Sonrisas is aiding the deaf community of Nicaragua in more ways than one. By having customers communicate with their waiters in Nicaraguan Sign Language, the cafe helps spread knowledge of NSL among the general public. Furthermore, all of the staff members being deaf and/or mute, in a business as public as the cafe, allows them to be visible to society in a way that most Nicaraguans with disabilities are not.

By allowing this visibility, the Cafe de las Sonrisas helps to combat stereotypes about Nicaraguans with disabilities. In a country where they are often ignored or mistreated and where it is nearly impossible to get a job and support themselves, the staff of the Cafe de las Sonrisas provides living proof that people with disabilities are capable of supporting themselves and contributing to society.

Keira Charles
Photo: connact global

Deaf Education Raises Morale in Africa
The world recently celebrated Deaf Awareness Week, also known as the International Week of the Deaf. It was instigated in Rome, Italy in 1958 to “gather together and provide a united front to draw attention to deaf people, their accomplishments and to promote their rights.”

However, not all who are deaf and hard of hearing receive sufficient attention and rights, especially in the education department.

Many countries in Africa struggle to provide proper schooling for their growing numbers of deaf and hearing-impaired children. In fact, deaf education is almost nonexistent.

Hearing loss is prevalent in African countries where bacterial infections often go untreated. Due to poor screening and minimal awareness of hearing loss, it’s difficult to determine the percentage of deaf and hard of hearing persons in Africa.

Still, researchers estimate that about one in seven children in Nigeria experiences a decreased hearing capacity or total deafness.

The deaf and hard of hearing are often perceived as impaired and unable to learn. When Georgine Auma of Kenya went deaf at the age of 9, her parents pulled her out of school for an entire year until they could decide what to do with her.

Even with hearing aids, she experienced isolation and identity crisis. Many deaf and hearing-impaired children are left to grow up illiterate, which limits their opportunities and puts them at greater risk of extreme poverty.

What is being done about this? Human aid programs Signal and SignHealth Uganda (SHU) are working hard to provide special schools for deaf children and sign language training for parents and teachers.

“I thought I was the only deaf person in the world until I discovered Kenyan Sign Language at Maseno School for the Deaf,” said Auma. Her deaf education gave her a “sense of belonging” that she hadn’t felt since she lost her hearing.

Deaf education provides hearing-impaired children with increased self-confidence and the ability to learn. Since 2009, students have demonstrated an increase in literacy and capacity for learning at a faster level. They also interact better with their hearing peers.

In addition to improving deaf education, Signal and SHU strive to change the social stigma against the deaf and hearing impaired. More and more graduating students can find careers and avoid becoming a burden on society.

Slowly but steadily, Signal and SHU are building a positive attitude toward deafness that will improve the overall morale of Africa. When a nation’s children are educated and happy, the country prospers as a whole.

Auma, now a young adult, participates in the Young African Leaders Initiative to bring greater awareness to the need for deaf education. Her deaf and hard-of-hearing peers can look forward to a happier future full of possibilities.

Sarah Prellwitz

Sources: USAID, Deafness, Hear-it, Signal
Photo: Wikimedia

Deaf Children in Poverty: a Right to an Education
Obtaining an education in a poverty stricken country is hard for most children living in those conditions. It’s almost impossible when that child is deaf and has no access to sign language assisted learning. Millions of children are struggling to learn or not attending school at all because of this fact.

Educational; Disadvantage

In countries like Nepal, Kenya, China and Northern Uganda, parents, teachers and the wider community often see deaf children as mentally impaired or just altogether incapable of learning. So while these children may be lucky enough to obtain cochlear implants or hearing aids, they are forced to miss out on important learning milestones.

Kenyan Natha Yare recalls being denied her right to an education growing up because she was deaf. Natha talks about how her quality of education was compromised even though she was able to attend a school for the deaf, which was a 15 hour trip by bus.

The teachers there did not know Kenyan Sign Language. They simply wrote on the board, expecting the children to copy down what they saw, which they did. The children were then allowed to play, never actually gaining an understanding of what had been copied.

USAID Provides Resources to Deaf Children

USAID is dedicated to changing the way deaf children in poverty are treated in many countries worldwide. Many poverty stricken countries simply do not have the funds or even the resources to provide sign language teachers or aids.

USAID has helped to promote the implementation of sign language projects in several countries including Ecuador, Georgia and Morocco.

It is important for deaf children to learn sign language in order to allow them the opportunity to be able to express themselves, communicate and learn. In order to ensure this, teachers who are qualified to teach national sign language, and at all educational levels, must be hired.

Deaf children who never learn sign language are highly likely to develop into adults who have a hard time communicating with family, friends and the larger community. This will make it very hard for them to achieve true independence and to lead fulfilling, successful lives.

Education is Always the Key

Every child deserves to have access to a proper education and “the right to education in sign language for deaf people is safeguarded by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.”

By safeguarding this right, especially for those children living in extreme poverty, we give each deaf child the opportunity to reach their full potential and break the cycle of poverty.

Drusilla Gibbs

Sources: USAID, HRW
Photo: Pixabay

This year, Sense International, an organization targeting sensory disabilities in developing nations, launched its first deaf-blind curriculum in Kenya. The program will formalize education and promote specialized home care for over 17,000 deaf and blind children in a country with no precedent for disability education.

Sense International Kenya has been at work since 2005, when teachers began protesting in earnest to the Kenyan Institute of Education about the lack of programs and metrics to guide and measure deaf-blind education.

Kenya currently has 10 centers of education for the deaf-blind—in a country with a population of 42 million. The great demand for specialized care coupled with a total lack of curriculum has left many classrooms in chaos. Teachers with the best intentions, but no tools, have no recourse.

But the problems have roots far deeper than a lack of curriculum. For many families, the distance is just too great or boarding fees too expensive to enroll their children in the few special learning centers.

Without care or intervention, struggling families often can’t help but marginalize their deaf-blind children. Thousands of disabled people live shuttered, lonely lives due to a lack of education.

Sense International addresses these problems on several fronts. First, it recently pioneered a deaf-blind education program in Kenya, fully equipped with material and performance gauges on every academic level. It built the curriculum based on studiously researched input from parents and teachers of the deaf-blind, as well as established practices from its operations around the world in countries like Romania, Peru, India, and Uganda.

Sense also works with community organizations to ramp up specialized care for children with severe disabilities. They provide home-based education and therapy, train parents to care for their disabled children, and connect families with experts and organizations that offer advanced support.

Yet, perhaps most important of all, Sense advocates for policy geared toward the deaf-blind. For example, Tanzania, one of its countries of operation, currently subsidizes transport costs for disabled children to and from special learning centers. Sense is pressuring Kenya to adopt similar practices.

The notoriously bureaucratic Kenyan government presents another problem in itself. To combat this, Sense is cutting away at the red tape prohibiting reform by maintaining constant contact with leaders on sensitive issues.

“This project has shown just what can be achieved with political will and the expertise of organizations such as ourselves,” reports Edwin Osundwa, the country representative of Sense International Kenya. “We are proud of what has been achieved and are now keen to repeat the process for home-based education.”

John Mahon

Sources: Sense International, The Guardian
Photo: The Guardian

The Deaf in sub-Saharan Africa face a unique set of challenges. They tend to be isolated from society in ways that people with hearing struggle to understand, and they are often seen as burdensome or even as a bad omen for their families. Education for the Deaf in sub-Saharan Africa is severely lacking, and they are often denied the opportunity to live independent and fulfilling lives. The concept of Deaf culture, in which deafness can be seen as a neutral or even positive trait, has yet to take root in most African societies. However, in some countries, exciting progress is being made.

Andrew Foster (1927-1987) is often considered the father of deaf education in Africa. After becoming the first African American to graduate from Gallaudet College, the preeminent school for the deaf, Foster founded the Christian Mission for Deaf Africans in the United States in 1956. A visit to Accra, Ghana the following year inspired him to found a school for the deaf in Ghana. Foster highly emphasized the importance of sign language, rather than forcing deaf children to communicate using only oral speech, as theory known as Foster’s Total Communication philosophy.

Throughout his adult life he founded 31 schools in 17 African countries where deaf children could be educated and empowered. Many of these students returned to their home villages and educated other deaf children, spreading the message that deaf children can and should be educated.

Today, education for the Deaf in most sub-Saharan African countries is sub-par at best. In societies where primary education is not yet universal, priority is given to general education that benefits more children. Programs are usually run by non-governmental organizations, often resulting in a lack of oversight and regulation. Teachers are usually not deaf and often lack the skills necessary to teach deaf children. Funds are often low, so textbooks and other school supplies are often in short supply. Perhaps most problematically, there is generally no expectation that deaf children will continue past primary school.

No sub-Saharan African country has reliable data concerning its deaf population. Instead, they often end up disappearing from school systems, workplaces, and society in general simply because they cannot hear.

Lack of skilled medical care exacerbates the problem, resulting in a lack of early identification and investigation. It is also generally assumed that deafness rates in developing countries are higher due to limited treatment options, malnutrition, and chronic illnesses that affect hearing. It should also be noted that in more affluent societies there are many hard of hearing children who can function as fairly easily. These children are usually provided with hearing aids, but most families in the developing world cannot afford them.

Cultural attitudes also contribute to the lack of urgency when it comes to deaf children’s education. While sub-Saharan Africa is incredibly diverse and there are clearly exceptions for every trend, there are some harmful stereotypes about the Deaf that are common in many countries. Some see deafness as an act of fate or a sign of God’s punishment. Deaf children are often hidden because they are considered a source of familial shame. They may also be pitied and seen as burdensome and helpless, which can result in abuse such as sexual violence towards deaf women.

These negative attitudes generally increase the isolation of deaf children and feed into the stigmatization of deafness. Governmental policies that fail to protect the Deaf from discrimination, as well as derogatory language similar to the English phrase “deaf and dumb”, are manifestations of this stigmatization.

In the face of the clear inequity suffered by the Deaf in sub-Saharan Africa, it is encouraging to recognize the progress being made. Four sub-Saharan African countries (Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Uganda) have prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities. Additionally, Deaf culture is gaining headway. Uganda is one of just a few countries worldwide to have officially recognized a sign language in its constitution and there are currently two journals focusing on Africans with disabilities. Deaf Link Uganda, a non-profit founded in 2007, is currently working to empower deaf individuals in Uganda by creating Deaf communities and providing education and job training, as well as work opportunities. Educational opportunities for the Deaf, including primary schools and beyond, are increasing, especially in Nigeria.

These positive developments reflect a changing culture. Deafness in sub-Saharan Africa is becoming more accepted and supported. Such progress is sorely and urgently needed, making it all the more exciting to witness.

– Katie Fullerton

Sources: Project Muse, Deaf Link Uganda
Photo: Commission Stories