Since the onset of the Covid19 pandemic, at least two deaf people were shot and killed in Uganda by state law enforcement officers. Their ‘crime’ was being deaf and uneducated. Their inability to hear or comprehend Covid19 containment measures communicated in English led to their death.
This is despite the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD) and its reporting mechanisms requiring the governments to remove all barriers to information access – including those faced by Deaf persons. Deaf people are a linguistic minority – with sign language being their primary language of communication. In Uganda, 1 in 30 people are deaf.
Kenya and Uganda have both taken initial steps to legally recognize sign language in the Constitution and have begun to include sign language in official communications. Kenya, for example, has expanded healthcare services by providing interpreters in hospitals. But the fact that deaf people and their issues are still regarded a minority and neglected is all the proof we need to show that we have a long way to go.
Countries in the East African community must redouble their efforts to implement their inclusion laws, and legally recognize their sign languages in all sectors. Additionally, they must take on the costs of sign language interpretation in public sectors. This will be a big step towards building the inclusive East African community that we all seek. Until then, we in the Deaf community, continue to suffer discrimination.
As a first step, we must ensure that sign language interpreters play an essential part in economic, social and political events, so that deaf persons can actively and meaningfully participate public life. Many people assume that all deaf persons understand advanced written grammar. This is not the case, as English (or any other language) and Sign Language grammar are distinct.
To aid deaf persons in deciphering spoken and written language, sign language interpreters are needed. Nonetheless, their services are expensive, costing an average of $40 daily for these services. Consider this alongside the fact that 41% of Ugandans live on less than $1.90 a day. These services are indeed out of reach for majority of the deaf and hard of hearing community in the country.
We’re seeing some progress. In Uganda, there have been sustained television campaigns on the need to expand access to information and services through sign language. It is envisaged that through this campaign, more Ugandans will be aware of their rights and that it will in turn move political decision makers to speed up the approval of the Draft Guidelines to Television Access by the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance. These will provide structures towards implementation.
The other EAC countries are yet to officially recognize their sign languages. This results in the perpetuation of human rights exclusions and abuses of deaf persons. These countries must therefore fulfill their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which promotes the full integration of persons with disabilities in societies.
While it could be argued that there are indeed legal and policy frameworks in Uganda and the EAC countries that ensure access to information; this largely remains on paper and is not in practice, particularly for deaf persons. Consider that healthcare facilities, educational institutions and government offices have inaccessible formats of information and a lack of sign language interpreters. Additionally, television – both for information and entertainment purposes, is largely exclusive to the hearing world.
Additionally, consider the value and importance of Sign language interpretation of court proceedings to an accused Deaf person. Certainly, interpretation is the only means of ensuring proper understanding and participation in the trial, yet it is not always readily available. Access to justice has been denied to many deaf persons in many unreported cases. Deaf persons are therefore largely sidelined and suffer widespread injustices.
Countries in the EAC should therefore urgently shift towards implementation of their national and international laws on inclusion. They must legally recognize their sign languages and mainstream them into all sectors. Additionally, they must take on the costs of sign language interpretation in public sectors. This will be a big step towards building the inclusive East African community that we all seek. Until then, we in the Deaf community, continue to suffer discrimination.
Timothy is a Deaf lawyer and a disability inclusion specialist in Uganda. He is an Aspen New Voices 2022 Fellow and founder of Stein Law and Advocacy for the Deaf.