Monday, 15 October 2012

Barriers to Effectively Educating the Deaf in Kenya

Barriers to Effectively Educating the Deaf in Kenya

Written by:
Peter Crume, Peace Corps Volunteer – Deaf Education (1999 – 2001)
Norma Moran, Peace Corps Volunteer – Deaf Education (2000 – 2002)
Sitara Shiekh, Peace Corps Volunteer – Deaf Education (2000 – 2002)

23 April 2001

As Peace Corps Volunteers teaching in schools for the deaf in Kenya we have had a first hand opportunity to understand how schools for the deaf in Kenya operate. Many of our experiences are truly wonderful and it has been a joy to interact with students and work side by side with teachers at school. As we began working, we slowly realized the different issues and problems existing in Kenyan schools for the deaf. There are many problems and barriers in deaf education. Peace Corps Volunteers are in Kenya not only to teach in schools, but also to help improve the quality of education of the deaf.  However, it is impossible for us to affect any real lasting change to the overall deaf education system in this country unless we discuss issues with significant policy decision-makers
in Peace Corps, the Ministry of Education, and the Kenyan Institute of Education.

This paper is written with the intention to inform the officials at the U.S. Peace Corps, Ministry of Education, and the Kenyan Institute of Education as well as other interested individuals about the pressing issues in deaf education in Kenya at this present time. The issues discussed in this paper include: ineffective communication, inadequate teacher training, curriculum, poverty, lack of resources, community awareness, teachers’ attitude and commitment, hiring practices, and the mask of benevolence. After reading this paper, the reader should be able to understand what some of the pressing issues are in deaf education and then begin the process of trying to resolve some of these issues.

1. Ineffective communication

The main barrier in education is a lack of effective communication. Many teachers are unable to properly teach deaf children in Kenya because they cannot communicate with them. Many teachers sign very poorly and make little effort to improve their signing
ability. Also, teachers do not have a clear direction on how they should communicate with deaf children. There is a great amount of confusion on what is the proper sign modality to use with deaf children. Which should be used, Kenyan Sign for Schools (KSS) or Kenyan Sign Language (KSL)?

KSS is very similar to Signed Exact English (SEE) used in United States. KSS replaces a small percentage of signs used in SEE with those that have been developed in Kenya. KSS, like SEE, is not a language but a signed system that visually transmits on the hands
what is spoken in English. Sentences like, “I am going to the store,” will be signed, “I AM GO-ING TO THE STORE.” KSS uses specific signs to show degrees. A word like taller will have two signs TALL-ER and very mad will be signed VERY MAD.

KSL is a language and follows the language structure found in American Sign Language (ASL). KSL often incorporates non-manual markers to compliment signs. Some of the examples of non-manual markers are such things as gestures, facial expressions, signing space, and the speed of signs. Non-manual markers visually show things like degree of things, pace of speech, and inflections in speech, sarcasm for example. Non-manual markers give the deaf person a complete range of language features; thus they are beneficial.  KSS, conversely, often misses out on the subtle features of language.

KSL uses a Subject-Object-Verb (S-O-V) sentence pattern in comparison, while English uses a Subject-Verb-Object (S-V-O) sentence pattern. In KSL, sentences like, “I am going to the store,” will be signed, “I store go.” It should also be noted that KSL is not a written language. The function of KSL is to transmit information visually between two people and not on paper. While, this helps a deaf person communicate effectively, it does create some confusion while writing.

Both KSL and KSS are used in schools throughout Kenya, there is confusion on what is officially sanctioned and advocated by the Kenyan Institute of Education (KIE). It is thought that KIE recommends KSS, although it is not completely clear.

The Kenyan National Association of the Deaf (KNAD) and the Kenyan Sign Language Research Project (KSLRP), based at the University of Nairobi, both advocate KSL.
A majority of deaf adults in Kenya use KSL. Post-lingual deaf adults (those who lost their hearing after they have developed language, typically five years of age or older) tend to advocate KSS. This is due to the fact that post-lingual deaf adults have a
previous understanding of the features of spoken language. They can effectively make use of these features while using KSS. Meanwhile, pre-lingual deaf adults did not have a solid foundation in any language in the beginning and have limited KSS comprehension.

Many teachers find that using KSS is much easier for them to learn and use due to simple signing exactly what they say. Many teachers use KSS and their students have difficulty understanding them. For Deaf Kenyans, KSL is a natural means of communicating; many pupils revert to KSL when they are outside of class.

KSS also often fails to correctly capture concepts in sentences. Words often have multiple meanings based on the context of the sentence, and teachers often only use one generic sign for all the meanings of the word. A terrific illustration of this point is the word “up.” “Up” is a word often used in combination with other words, such as got-up, woke-up, threw-up, sped-up, fed-up, etc. These cannot be signed literally because the concept would be completely wrong. Another example is the word “saw.” A sentence like, “He saw the girl,” can often be signed incorrectly. Deaf students often misunderstand the word saw, the past tense of see, and incorrectly think saw is an object
that cuts in things in half. Errors like the word “saw” are very common, and there are many such examples like this.

Many teachers will argue that they also use KSS because they believe that it will help students learn English better. KSL, they argue, takes away from students reading and writing ability. The reason is because it encourages students to write in the Subject-Object-Verb sentence structure. Teachers feel KSS is logical because of the corresponding English word pattern. They believe when using the KSS sentence
structure students will thus learn to read and write more effectively.

A similar debate exists in America regarding the usage of ASL and SEE. To try and put an end to the debate Gallaudet University (the only Liberal Arts University
for the deaf in the world located in Washington, D.C.) did a study to see which method was more effective at teaching the deaf the English language. The study compared children that were taught using ASL, SEE, or Oral (which used no signs at all) methods to see how students would perform in English and abstract thinking. After the research was completed, researchers learned that children taught using ASL far out performed children taught using SEE and Oral methods. Researchers concluded that ASL provided
students with a strong and familiar language foundation; with that foundation it then become possible for students to translate ASL over to correct English. In Kenya, the same can be said for hearing students who speak their tribal language prior to school and then translate their vernacular into English.

Not discussed so far is “total communication.” “Total communication” is another method used in schools besides KSS and KSL. Total communication aims to incorporate both speech and signs together. Total communication has its benefits; in that students can
practice speech reading while still getting the advantages of signs. In reality, however, most teachers end up only signing only a small percentage of what they say, thus most deaf students get but a mere fraction of what was said. Unfortunately, teachers often walk away with a false sense of having properly communicated the message when actually they have not. It is also culturally inappropriate for students to criticize their teachers for being unclear in their message and ultimately the students suffer.

2. Inadequate teacher training

Teachers in Kenya are greatly under trained in the knowledge and skills they would need to properly work with deaf children. Presently, the Kenyan Institute of Special Education (KISE) offers either a two-year education program or a three-month training course.
The two-year education program is very general and covers a wide range of special education topics, not only deaf education. In addition to deaf education, significant amount of time is spent covering such areas like mental retardation, learning disabilities,
blindness, physically handicapped, and autism. Teachers receive information about the anatomy and physiology of deafness, psychology of deafness, instructional strategies, and some instruction in Kenyan Signs for Schools. Teachers receive no specific training in appropriate instructional strategies and techniques for deaf children and are insufficiently
trained in any signed language.

The three-month course is a more condensed form of the two-year program and touches on topics covered in deafness unit. Teachers finish the course certainly more knowledgeable about deafness but still insufficiently trained to communicate with and to
teach the deaf.

Space and availability also remains a hindrance to teacher training. KISE only has a limited number of spaces available (25) for untrained teachers. Only a handful of the hundreds of teachers working at schools for the deaf each year are able to enroll in a
training course and learn about concepts in deaf education. More courses need to be made available to teachers so they can have some emphasis in training and understanding on how to work with deaf students.

In addition, more opportunities and classes for teachers to improve their sign language skills. The short course taught at KISE is only enough to increase their basic knowledge of sign language. As a result, teachers complete the training course not proficient in sign language. Therefore, teachers need to have an opportunity to interact with deaf people.

More sign language training opportunities need to be offered regionally and at affordable costs. Since space is limited at training institutes, sign language seminars offered regionally would open up training opportunities for many more teachers. Seminars could be offered during the term breaks on a rotating regional basis so that teachers in all areas of Kenya could have opportunities to attend.

3. Curriculum

The curriculum mandated by the Ministry of Education must be used in all schools in Kenya, including schools for the deaf. There is no specific curriculum designed for deaf children. Deaf children are expected to adhere to the same curriculum used in normal
hearing schools. In an ideal situation deaf children can learn the same things and at the same pace, but education for the deaf in Kenya is anything but ideal.

The curriculum was designed with the assumption that a child should have five years of a language foundation before they arrive to school. In almost all cases, deaf children do not. When a deaf child first enters school they spend two years in preparatory classes.
During this time they develop some foundation of language, learn to communicate with teachers and peers, and begin to recognize signs with pictures and symbols. While the language develops at a rapid rate, it is still not close to appropriate-age levels.

After two years of preparatory classes, children are placed in standard one. It soon becomes apparent to teachers that children have not mastered basic concepts required by the syllabus. Although teachers are aware of this, they are expected to keep pace with the mandated curriculum even if children do not understand what is being taught. Education officials visit the schools and put pressure on Head Teachers (principals) to keep pace with the syllabus. This presents problems to teachers of the deaf because they are expected to move rapidly at the expense of the students. Teachers cannot spend time with students focusing on particular skills such as reading and writing. Education officials seem to value and emphasize on finishing the syllabus simply for the sake of finishing it on time rather than ensuring children master basic skills of reading and writing. The skills that will help them become productive and literate citizens of Kenya.

Kiswahili represents a tremendous obstacle for deaf children. Deaf children are often too confused during the process of their language development when Kiswahili is taught in addition to English. In addition to English, learning Kiswahili makes it difficult for deaf children to develop a strong language foundation. Deaf children are told that there are two different words for nouns and verbs. There is much confusion on what is the correct and incorrect word, thus their language foundation becomes distorted.

The assessment process of the Kenyan Education system is also an obstacle for deaf children. For instance, the standardized tests are written in English, which is far beyond the understanding of many deaf children. Even if the deaf children understand the necessary concepts, the language of the tests proves much too difficult for the child. As a result, many children end up simply guessing on a test that makes no sense to them.

The standardized tests are not a valid measure of what the children actually know. Ironically, the brightest children in class can often score the lowest on the standardized test while children with very low mental and cognitive functioning can score very well, simply because they were able to guess better.

As a side note, it is interesting that educational officials group the school’s for the deaf KCPE results with that of hearing schools. Such a comparison does very little to benefit schools for the deaf. Hearing and deaf schools are in two different categories and deaf schools are almost absolutely guaranteed to be last in every district. Comparing deaf schools with other provincial deaf schools would let know deaf schools know how they are fairing against other similar schools. This information would prove more useful as a lower-ranking school could ask a higher-ranking school for assistance on ways to improve their academic performance.

4. Poverty

The average per capita income in Kenya is $1,400 as compared to $28,600 in the USA. However, the average income of most of the 80% of Kenyans who live in rural areas is probably more around $500. People that live in the rural areas rely on subsistence farming and other methods to get by. Many individuals in the rural areas are poor and lack finances and resources.

In Kenya, education is paid for by a cost-sharing plan between the government and its citizens. Many families though, have difficulty paying simply for school fees. It is an additional burden to pay for school uniforms, textbooks, and other supplies.

Family sizes are typically very large, and it is a hardship to pay for school fees for families that can easily number six or more. Deaf children are often chosen as the last priority among all the children to be taken to school. This creates problems because a
deaf child may often miss several weeks of school and eventually will be behind. It can be difficult for the deaf child to learn and keep up with the pace of instruction. Continuous absences in attendance over the years can cause delays in the child’s learning
development and critical thinking process.

5. Lack of resources

Schools for the deaf often lack the necessary materials to help the deaf child. Most schools have problems in providing a textbook for every child. A child must then copy off the board, thus does not develop reading skills by reading a textbook.

Visual/teaching aids in schools for the deaf are very important to teachers who have difficulty signing. It is important to use pictures to try and make the concept clear and relevant. Without access to teaching aids, it becomes very difficult to effectively relay
information to students.

Additionally, many children do not have access to library books. Schools are often too poor to fund books for a library; children do not have the ability to read books that would develop their reading skills. Library books help deaf children over-compensate
visually and give them something extra to stimulate them and help them develop their language ability at a faster rate.

Computers are also a great resource which benefit the deaf child. Computers are very visual and have a variety of educational software programs to stimulate the deaf child. However, due to the high cost of computers and necessary computer training, many
schools for the deaf cannot afford to buy any or enough computers that would adequately serve the needs of their students.

6. Community awareness

Many people in Kenya know very little about deafness and even less about sign language and deaf culture. When a child is born deaf most Kenyan parents are ashamed and hide their deaf child. Parents often know very little about the causes of deafness, services for
the deaf, and how to raise a deaf child.

People in some areas of Kenya, particularly the western areas, believe that deafness is caused by witchcraft. Even in families with four to five deaf children, some Kenyans will still hold the belief that someone cursed all their children. Many people do not understand that deafness is mainly caused by ear infections, illness, and other various genetic causes.

Parents know very little about where to go for help. They have no idea where they can do to get necessary services for their child and how to communicate with their deaf child. Many families are isolated since they live out in rural areas and are unable to learn
where they can go for services.

Many members out in the community are not aware that deaf people can read and write and as well as communicate with others. People are ignorant about the abilities of the deaf. Community outreach helps members out in the community to become more
knowledgeable relating to issues concerning the deaf.

7. Attitude and Commitment

The power of belief is tremendous. Deaf people can do anything that hearing people can do, except hear. Deaf people have minds and bodies that work just as well as their hearing counterparts. Deaf people are different only in the sense that they cannot hear and that they communicate in a different language than a hearing person. If a person can communicate then the “disability” goes away, because deafness is essentially a communication disability, not a physical one.

With that said, many hearing teachers that work in the schools for the deaf think that the deaf have little chance to succeed in their education and ultimately in life. Unfortunately, many teachers who believe that students will be unsuccessful are the ones that ultimately ensure such a fate, engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Deaf students are unsuccessful, not because they cannot learn, but ultimately because teachers do not educate them

Far too often, teachers come into the classroom, write the lesson on the board, orally read what they said, and then wait for deaf students to copy the information off the board. Students learn nothing when a teacher teaches this way. But what is even sadder is the fact that this type of "teaching" would satisfy any inspector who came into the school and wanted only to look at lesson plans, schemes of work, and students' work.

On the other hand, teachers who believe that deaf children can be successful students make the extra effort to do what it takes to ensure deaf children will have a chance to succeed. Teachers that believe deaf students can do well take the extra effort to make sure that their lessons are effective and interesting to the students. These teachers constantly
strive to expand their sign language vocabulary. They devise ways to utilize teaching aids in interesting and informative ways that help deaf children learn well. Deaf students learn from such teachers and become more successful academically and in life.

8. Hiring practices

There seem to be three groups of teachers in the schools for the deaf. The first group is the type of teacher that really cares about deaf children and strives to become a good teacher for the deaf. The second group is the type of teacher that sees deaf education as an area for good career advancement that is not possible in regular schools. Lastly, the third group is the type of teacher that joins the schools for the deaf because he or she sees the opportunity the school as a place to escape, be lazy, and take advantage of the salary increase.

The first and second groups of teachers seem to be dedicated and committed to their work. These teachers tend to have the interest of the student in mind. They give good effort and work to improve their teaching and signing skills. These teachers help improve the quality of deaf education.

Unfortunately, a large percentage of teachers seem to be in the third group of teachers that do not want to work in schools for the deaf. These teachers lack motivation and commitment and do little to help deaf students learn and improve. These teachers increase the burden on the other teachers who try to teach deaf children and overload others’ responsibilities. These are the teachers that should be detected and then
transferred to normal schools, but yet little is done about them.

Another area of significance is the hiring of head teachers. Some head teachers are wonderful administrators and do a lot to make the schools for the deaf better places to learn. However, there are many head teachers that are not qualified to be head teachers in the first place and should be removed. More diligence should be done in the hiring practices of head teachers to ensure their proper qualifications. Head teachers, other than
administering the school and meeting the child’s needs, permit teachers to voice their concerns about the school and provide teachers with good working conditions and good morale. When teachers have poor morale and enthusiasm teachers are not as committed to their jobs and teach poorly and the child suffers.

There are even some head teachers who hardly attend school. Many of these head teachers have a high number of absences and cannot properly run the school when they are out. There needs to be some governing body that can provide a check and balance for poor head teachers. Head teachers often feel that they are invincible and are untouchable because there is no system of checks and balances. Policies need to be put into place to ensure that head teachers are running the school appropriately and that the needs of the
teachers and students are being met. 

9. The Mask of Benevolence

Teachers who work in the schools for the deaf are sympathetic toward deaf people. Unlike the average Kenyan who knows little about deaf people, teachers know that deaf people have hopes, dreams, and aspirations like all people. Teachers know that deaf
people can communicate ideas through sign language. Teachers know that deaf people can learn and deaf people can read and write.

Teachers know that they have a special ability to help deaf children develop into productive members of society. However, a person who teaches at a school for the deaf is a teacher of the deaf and not a “helper” of the deaf. When people see themselves as “helpers” then they believe that whatever they do, whether it is a lot or a little, is going to make deaf people better off than they were before. Although this may be true, teachers are not “helpers” but teachers. A person that teaches needs to address the needs of the target group they are teaching.

One huge need that they deaf have is to improve their language skills and understanding of culture. Often hearing people develop their language by listening to others informally in group discussions. People develop their language by hearing new vocabulary words and by learning about different ideas and concepts through the course of discussion. Deaf children have the same need to develop their language and understanding of the world but yet teachers only teach do this when they teach formally. Teachers often exclude deaf
students when they are talking amongst themselves. Teachers will not sign what they say, even when they are in direct presence of students. However, many teachers do not realize that not only does this exclude the deaf person from the conversation, but it also hinders their language development. When teachers hinder learning among their students they are also oppressing them from developing to their full potential.

Also, teachers seem to give little respect to the thoughts and feelings of deaf adults. While, it may be true that deaf adults lack the formal degrees or certifications, they still have valuable information to contribute. Deaf adults can express their thoughts and ideas about how deaf education and communication can be improved but little respect is given to their opinions. Instead of seriously evaluating their ideas and feelings, teachers often trivialize the ideas and do not take them seriously. Instead of looking to deaf adults for answers to solve the serious issues in deaf education, teachers often look up deaf adults as low educated people that know very little.


Of all the problems we have listed perhaps the two most significant barriers in deaf education in Kenya are poor communication and attitude. Teachers, school administrators, and policy- makers need to seriously consider these two issues and work toward resolving them. Deaf children are intelligent and highly capable young people with a great deal of potential. However, many people view deaf education as a fruitless
endeavor that takes too much time, effort, and resources. With adequate communication skills and proper attitude deaf education in Kenya can be very successful. Such changes can happen if they are not only encouraged, but also demanded of teachers.

We have highlighted nine major problems that we have see in deaf education in Kenya today. There are more problems but the nine we listed are the more pressing issues currently affecting deaf education in Kenya. We hope that policy-makers working for Peace Corps Kenya, the Ministry of Education, and the Kenya Institute of Education will read over our concerns and work together to improve the overall quality of education.

As stated earlier, as Peace Corps Volunteers we see the problems in deaf education and we try to struggle with these issues on a daily basis but there is but only so much we can do. We need the assistance of policy decision-makers to change deaf education for the better. Education provides a society with individuals that are knowledgeable and productive workers, but it certainly cannot happen with only a few dedicated teachers. A good education system is a collaboration and partnership from administrators to head teachers to teachers to parents and ultimately students. Together we can make deaf education work for Kenya.

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