Silvia Muturi is not your ordinary hearing interpreter. She is concerned that the deaf community is often forgotten when we talk about people with disabilities. We trace her journey, approximately 10 years ago when she got the chance to learn the basics of the Kenyan sign language from the missionaries in her local church. She had her first interaction with deaf people at a young age when she would accompany her mother, a nurse to work. Often, some patients who were deaf would come in to the hospital and it would be very difficult for them to express what was ailing them.
After the sign language classes, she started interacting with deaf people around Ambassador and Kencom in Nairobi. In the beginning, she was very apprehensive. Silvia was touched by the fact that her life proceeded into different seasons like college and motherhood. Unfortunately, for many of the deaf people she met, their lives stayed the same over a long period of time with many left out of employment and lack of education. There is a very low transition level to institutions of higher education for children who are deaf. Many of them usually take up technical courses.
Multiple and intersectional discrimination often arises especially for deaf women. Many of them are raped or face other forms of gender based violence but they are not able to communicate what they go through. ‘It has a lot to do with the society’s attitude towards deaf people. They are labelled as those who cannot do anything. On the contrary, they are well able. Speaking is not the only form of communication. I remember working as an interpreter for deaf women who are currently working as nurses. I also work as an interpreter for a student at the University of Nairobi,’ she elaborates.
Silvia would like to see the community especially public institutions understanding that they could be barriers towards the empowerment of deaf people. She advises that interpreters should understand their skill set. For example, if you can interpret mathematics well, you focus on that area so that your quality of work is very high and therefore this benefits everyone.
As a result of all the gaps she came across, she started Deafine, an enterprise to empower the deaf. One of the things she is working on is developing technology services that records voices and reproduces it in written form which deaf people can read. This is based on the first pillar of the enterprise which she calls Deafine Connect. Through collaborations and partnerships, she is confident it will be successful. The second pillar is themed on Creative Arts through dancing, acting and fashion. The last pillar is the Deaf Girls Rock Movement. Through this, girls will be empowered through information sharing for example sexual and reproductive education for adolescents, training on hygiene and means of ending gender based violence. However, she continues to lack resources to fully accomplish her targets.
Caregivers are the key to ensuring that deaf people have a proper support system. It is important for them to learn sign language so that they can communicate with them. The family should protect them. Silvia has seen firsthand how difficult it is for parents to access information on how to care for their children. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough data on what deaf people need and how many are born.
Deaf children caught up in the justice system and those in conflict with the law go through so much. Majority are remanded without proper medical examination and assessment or identification from their care givers. As a result, many end up in crime without a way of communicating what could have led them into bad behaviour.
‘It is good to find out what the people you are working with need. You need to relate with their challenges. Don’t assume and be empathetic,’ Sylvia advices. Her model of teaching deaf people their rights is more about awareness and advocacy. She notes that Kenyan sign language has been recognised in the constitution but the system still does not support them. For example, we don’t have interpreters in hospitals or public transport systems. It is also important for service providers to make their platforms more accessible to deaf people. In many instances, the only time deaf people engage with companies for example food providers is when they are raising a complaint. Therefore, we need to keep raising awareness.
Though challenging, Sylvia has managed to make strides in her area of work. She had the opportunity to participate at Unleash which is an innovation lab that brings talents from all over the world to create real, scalable solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals held in Denmark August 2017. Her theme was on Education and ICT (SDG goal number 3) and out of over 40 teams, hers emerged the Gold winner and was even featured in Unicef stories of Innovation. As mentioned earlier on, the innovative idea is how to change Education for Deaf children in Kenya using an intelligent application that schedules interpretation services for the schools. They are currently looking for funding to develop this platform.
Although, not much has changed, she continues to give where she can. For example, they started a facebook page where they use music and irony to get the attention of the hearing society so they can be aware of the Deaf community and be inclusive. Other achievements include launching the first Africa DeaFest™ in Kenya and Mr. and Miss Deaf Africa™. Further, she inspired the biggest mobile network operator in Kenya to train their customer care staff on Kenyan sign language. She has also done this with the Huduma Care Center. It is important to note that she helped in translating the Constitution from written English into Kenyan sign language videos.
‘My son and mother have been very understanding with my work which I consider as my God given calling. I advice anyone who works with people with disabilities to have someone they can talk to because it is a very challenging task. You need to protect yourself from burn out and have a good support positive system,’ Sylvia concludes.