This year, the International Week of the Deaf (19-25 September) takes place under the theme of ‘With sign language, I am equal’ – a message with which Grace Nabuloli wholeheartedly agrees.
24-year-old Grace grew up in a rural area of Uganda. Like 90% of deaf children, she was born to hearing parents with no experience of deafness and no idea how to communicate with her. This meant she was often isolated and excluded, left at home to do housework when her siblings left for school every morning.
Deafness is the most common disability in Uganda, affecting 360,000 under-18s. Deaf Child Worldwide, the global arm of the National Deaf Children’s Society, is working with a network of skilled local partners to help deaf children be fully included in their family, education and community life.
When Deaf Child Worldwide partner UDEWO (United Deaf Women Organisation) set up a project in the Bududa district of Uganda, they visited Grace’s family home to offer their support. At the time, Grace and her parents didn’t know any sign language, but project staff taught them some basic signs and communication skills.
Poor communication is at the heart of the problems deaf children face. Learning how to interact with her parents and being heard for the first time was a real turning point for Grace; she said it was the first time she realised that she didn’t have to be alone forever.
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) estimates 98% of all disabled children in the developing world do not go to school. In some places, deaf children are hidden away or prevented from attending school because of the cultural stigma – for example, there is a widespread belief in Africa that deafness is a curse from God. Grace had missed out on an education but UDEWO gave her the chance to enrol on a vocational skills course.
Grace jumped at this opportunity and spent a year studying in the nearby Jinja district, where she not only learned bespoke tailoring skills but also developed her confidence and relished her new-found independence. She met other deaf people her own age for the first time and this gave her communication skills a huge boost.
Her tailoring talents were so remarkable that when she graduated, the school gifted her a sewing machine so that she could continue her work. Grace is now working from her family home – and, as the only tailor in her small hometown, business is booming.
The same neighbours who used to laugh at Grace now bring their clothes for repair and make an effort to communicate and be understood, because she has challenged their misconceptions and shown that deafness is not a curse or a shame.
Grace has twelve brothers and sisters, including one younger brother who is also deaf. She said: “I’m teaching my deaf brother to sign and also my hearing family. Before I felt very alone but it is good to have learnt sign language… I feel happy with the skills I’ve learnt. I buy sugar and soap for my family to support them.”
Grace’s parents are very proud of her and, having seen the progress she’s made in a short time, they are now keen to ensure their deaf son gets support at an earlier age so that he can succeed and lead the life he desires. Seeing how Grace has flourished with the right support, her parents are determined their son gets the best chance in life and have enrolled him at an early learning centre where he will be taught sign language and communication skills to help prepare him for school.
To find out more about the work of Deaf Child Worldwide in Uganda, wider East Africa and across the globe, please visit www.deafchildworldwide.info.
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