Thursday, 24 January 2013

Kenyan Sign Language - Beyond Legal Recognition


Kenyan Sign Language (KSL)


It is estimated that Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) is the first and preferred language communication of between 600-800,000 Deaf people in the Kenya. The Kenyan Deaf community consists of individuals who come from ALL the 42 tribes of Kenya and are united by a common language – KSL, a shared culture, tradition and history; KSL is fundamental to their self-esteem and social well being. Deaf Kenyans regardless of tribe, gender or religion uses KSL as a medium of communication and for official transaction of business, school, religious activities and social interactions. With the promulgation of the new constitution in August of 2010, the Deaf community in Kenya have celebrated the recognition of Kenyan Sign Language in the new constitution. The official recognition of KSL brings a clear benefits to many thousands of Deaf people in terms of improved access to information and essential services. Recognition of KSL also promotes a better knowledge and understanding of the language in society as a whole and formally acknowledge the status of KSL as one of Kenya's second most widely used indigenous national languages second to Kiswahili.

 The following provisions affirms the place of Kenyan Sign Language in the Kenyan Constitution.
Chapter 2 Section 7 – National, Official and Other Languages
·         The national language of the Republic is Kiswahili.
·         The official languages of the Republic are Kiswahili and English.
·         The State shall:
·         respect, promote and protect the diversity of language of the people of Kenya.
·         The State shall promote the development and use of Kenyan Sign Language (KSL), Braille and other appropriate modes of communication for persons with disabilities.
Chapter 8 – Legislature - 120. Official Languages of Parliament
The official languages of Parliament shall be Kiswahili, English and Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) and the business of Parliament may be conducted in either English, Kiswahili and Kenyan Sign Language (KSL).

The provisions above have made it possible for the linguistic rights of the Deaf in Kenya to be guaranteed. This means that the Deaf Kenyan now has access to services such as education, interpretation, information and employment and to promote KSL and Deaf culture. Closer home these provisions have the following implications to the state, essential service providers, communities and Deaf citizens. The state shall promote, respect and develop the indigenous languages including Kenyan Sign Language. What does this mean? The state shall accord KSL the same respect to KSL that it accords to Kiswahili or English and enforce the same in the republic as long as there are users of KSL paying taxes. The State should promote promote KSL in public and private sector. In its functions and documentation it should be able to communicate its policies, proclamations and public notices in KSL. Development of KSL in higher institutions should be encouraged and nurtured. These all begins with the state taking the initiative of developing and adopting a language policy, this policy will guide the usage, research, documentation and development of all official and national languages namely Kiswahili, KSL and English.

Kenya ratified the UN Convention on 19 May 2008. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes and secures Deaf people’s linguistic rights. The most significant achievement for Deaf people is that article 2 defines sign languages as languages, more to say, they are considered equal to spoken languages. Sign languages have complex rules of grammar and expansive vocabularies, and are comfortably capable to be used in everyday conversation, intellectual discourse, rhetoric, likewise wit, and poetry. Sign languages in each country are found to have dialects, just as spoken languages do.. Our own PWD Act 2003 needs to be implemented! Deaf Kenyans have the best expertise and knowledge in the use of sign languages and they are signers or users of the language, thus, they should not be left out from any legislative process that affects their lives.

The key to the achievement of Deaf people’s basic rights is respect for the right to use sign languages. To promote this right, World Federation of the Deaf strongly encourages countries to recognise their national sign languages and Deaf people’s linguistic rights in legislation and to develop legislation to guarantee services and access to education, interpretation, information and employment for deaf citizens and to promote sign languages and Deaf culture. These rights are protected by the UN Convention by its five articles that have a direct reference to Deaf people and sign languages (See: Article 2 ; Article 9.2.e ; Article 21.b and 21.e; Article 24.3.b and 24.3.c and 24.4; Article 30.4).

Access to information and essential services
Deaf people face many barriers when using public and private services. This is frequently due to a lack of awareness of the needs of Deaf people on the part of service providers, and insufficient communication support. Deaf people with visual impairments (for example those with Usher syndrome) or other disabilities are especially disadvantaged. Essential Service Providers will have to make adjustments to be compliant and friendly to these legislative provisions. Because English is often their second language, Deaf KSL users do not always have full access to written information. Service providers therefore need to use interpreters wherever necessary and to make information available in KSL formats, for instance on video or CD-ROM.

Information, Communication and Education
In education, the use and teaching of KSL within a bilingual (KSL/English) learning environment is essential for some deaf children and adults. The early acquisition of language is vital to the learning process and for some deaf children KSL will be more accessible than spoken languages. The Framework of Action accompanying UNESCO's Salamanca Statement on Special Needs Education, to which Britain is a signatory, states that: The importance of sign language as the medium of communication among the deaf...should be recognized and provision made to ensure that all deaf persons have access to education in their national sign language. Framework for Action (1994), para 21) The United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 1993, similarly state that: Consideration should be given to the use of sign language in the education of the deaf children, in their families and communities. Sign language interpretation services should also be provided to facilitate the communication between deaf persons and others (Rule 5, Accessibility)  However, in Kenya, educational provision for deaf children varies greatly between education authorities, with some not offering bilingual programs and very few schools or resource bases for deaf children offering any formal teaching of KSL. A lack of access to KSL learning can adversely affect the language development of some deaf children and so impede their subsequent learning. Teachers in Schools for the Deaf have no options but to be fluent in KSL and be able to teach, discuss and examine topical issues in KSL.

Most schools in Kenya have for years insisted on the oral and or total communication mode of instruction. Those advocating for mainstreaming need to understand that a mainstreamed environment means that a Deaf child in a regular school would need the teachers and classmates to be able to communicate in KSL or have competent KSL interpreters available in the school compound and classroom. Demand for KSL courses has increased dramatically in the last decade. More and more people are learning the language - more than 2000 people took basic level course in KSL since 1998. However, there is a major shortage of trained and qualified KSL tutors and assessors. There is a KSL dictionary, interactive self teaching CD, the Kenya National Examinations Council, Kenya Institute of Special/Education – KIE/KISE have in last couple of years been developing curriculum and examination materials for KSL which began to be used in 2010. The language policy, the special education policy and the special needs education policy all need to be readjusted to reiterate the emerging need to have KSL as a mode of instruction in schools for the Deaf.

With a successful educational system and foundation for Deaf children will bring about a generation of competent KSL users and bilingual Deaf citizens able to access information through KSL, English, Kiswahili and any other languages of the republic of Kenya. Television stations and the movie industry will have to invest in employing interpreters for their educational, information and communication services. The Kenyan Sign Language Interpreters Association (KSLIA) is an indigenous organization of interpreters formed to train, certify and coordinate interpreter activities in the republic. The state should allocate funds to develop and promote this profession. Closed captioning and subtitling will go a long way in improving accessibility of information to the Deaf Kenyans.

Interpretation services for the youth, young adults and the adult population users of KSL is vital at all levels of society. Higher educational facilities need to recruit and train interpretation professionals for the courses they offer. Colleges and tertiary institutions need to affirm their commitment to mainstreamed services.

Telecommunication service providers should review their services with emergence of KSL. Relay, Video conferencing and Multimedia services are appealing to KSL users due to the visual nature of the language. This of course will have an impact on the tariffs and revenues of these service providers. We do not have the space to go into the various industries – healthcare, social service, law enforcement, disaster and emergency relief services, etc It is an enormous task to connect the impact of Deafness on an individual. The diagram below will illustrate the inter-connectivity and dependency of accessibility of an individual who is Deaf.

The media especially television will need to take into account the needs to use KSL interpretation professionals for its news and programs or embrace captioning and subtitling for equal accessibility.

Impact on Communities
Parents will have to learn KSL to communicate with their children. Parents of deaf children also receive greatly varying amounts of information and training in KSL, depending on the area they live in. However, this level of support remains the exception rather than the rule. Many parents are denied the choice of a bilingual method of education for their deaf children.

Responsibilities of the Deaf Citizens
Learn your language, document it, teach it and use it in pride with pride. Deaf pride will be the mantra! Organize yourselves to share the rich culture, history and language. You remain as the only true ambassadors of your communities. Use the language, teach it, record it and share it on the internet, youtube, Deaftube etc are media avenues available for you.

Kenyan Sign Language has gone through a historic monumental experience over the last three decades and it is with a lot of pride that the Kenya National Association of the Deaf KNAD looks back at the legacy of our forefathers, they have struggled and some have passed on without seeing the joy or benefits of their struggle to have KSL recognized, mentioned or accepted in our country. We salute men and women who since 1987 and earlier have advocated and stood their ground in making this historical moment possible. Posterity indeed will forever be grateful to the various individuals and organizations that have supported this cause. We thank the Kenyan Deaf community and KSL users allover the country for the support, letters, comments and views you all shared with the Constitutional Review Committees, without you KNAD has no voice. KNAD would like to thank the Government of Kenya especially the Ministries of Gender and Social Service, the Ministries of Youth and Sports, Education, Office of the Attorney General, the Committee of Experts, University of Nairobi – Linguistics Department; World Federation of the Deaf who supported the petition to have KSL recognized in the new constitution.


The Kenya National Association of the Deaf (KNAD) is a legal Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). The organization was founded and registered in 1987 with the Government of Kenya under the Societies Act of 1968 rule 4. The mission of KNAD is to advocate Human and Linguistic Rights of the Deaf Community in Kenya. KNAD membership is drawn from affiliated associations active in all the  47 Counties of Kenya.


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