Kenyan Sign Language - Beyond Constitutional Recognition Part I


The case for official recognition of KSL
There are no official figures for the number of KSL users in the Kenya, although it is estimated that there are between 600,000 and 800,000 people whose first and preferred language is KSL. There are as many Deaf KSL-users as there are speakers of some indigenous languages, and more people (Deaf and hearing) use KSL than either Swahili according to Ethnologue Report. Linguists have established that KSL is a language in its own right and is as complex and sophisticated as any spoken language.

Like all linguistic minorities, members of the Deaf community have different degrees of access to the majority language of the wider community. Since KSL is more accessible to many Deaf people than spoken languages such as English, official recognition of KSL is especially important. BSL is the foundation for the self-esteem, educational achievement and social well being of the Kenya's Deaf community. However, that community exists within a wider society of hearing people. Consequently, Deaf people who use KSL experience high levels of social exclusion, particularly in the following areas:

Access to information and 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.

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.
  
Interpreting
Kenya Sign Language Interpreters Association (KSLIA) was set up by a group of 20 local interpreters after training by the first Deaf Education US Peace Corps Volunteers in September 2000. Prior to this training there were several short term trainings conducted by KSLRP/KNAD dating back to 1980s and 1990s.

KSLIA is an indigenous initiative evolving and strengthening the face of the Interpreting profession in Kenya. KSLIA hopes to improve and elevate the standards of Interpreting in Kenya through the following objectives:

  1. 1.       To secure official recognition by the Government of S.L Interpreters profession
  2. 2.       Encourage and promote initiatives in improving the standards of SL interpreting and interpreter training and pay scale of interpreters depending with their level and skills of interpretation through certification.
  3. 3.       Cooperation with other recognized bodies concerned in the welfare of the deaf and in provision of S.L Interpreters throughout the world.
  4. 4.       Awareness creation on Deafness and SL. Interpreters through publication of information materials
  5. 5.       To collect and raise funds for the achievement of goals and objectives through membership fee, subscription, contribution, gifts or donations, commissions and payments, fund raising whether in money or otherwise from both members and non members.
  6. 6.       To maintain and administer a registry of S.L Interpreters in Kenya, enforce a code of ethics and mediate conflict between the Interpreters and their clients.

KSLIA is working towards the establishment of a training program and a certification process for its membership. [KSLIA] envisions its role in a three pronged approach - the three C's - Certification of members, Continuing education for the practicing Interpreters and Conflict resolution through enforcement of the Code of Ethics. Between 2006 - 2009 Global Deaf Connection, Deaf Aid, and KSLIA have jointly organized a series of trainings aimed at developing a process to provide training, certification and continued professional development for Kenyan Interpreters.

A KSL/spoken language interpreter provides a vital link between Deaf and hearing people. However, there is currently a serious shortage. As of year 2000 there were only 50 practicing interpreters and 100 trainee interpreters registered by the Kenyan Sign Language Interpreters Association – KSLIA and the Kenyan Sign Language Research Project – KSLRP.

The Persons with Disabilities Act 2003 requires businesses and service-providers to make their services accessible to Deaf people. However due to lack of gazette notification of these laws into policy has greatly contributed to the marginalization of the Deaf community in Kenya. The growth of demand for interpreters has not been matched by increased supply. This is a major obstacle to Deaf people's social inclusion.


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.

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. Most schools in Kenya have for years insisted on the oral and or total communication mode of instruction.

Teaching and learning KSL
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 are set to be used beginning 2010.
  
The legal status of KSL
Article 7
(b) promote the development and use of indigenous languages, Kenyan Sign languageBraille and other communication formats and technologies accessible to persons with disabilities.

Article 27
(4) The State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth.

Article 44
(1) Every person has the right to use the language, and to participate in the cultural life, of the person’s choice.
(2) A person belonging to a cultural or linguistic community has the right, with other members of that community--
(a) to enjoy the person’s culture and use the person’s language; or
(b) to form, join and maintain cultural and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society.

Article 49
(1) An arrested person has the right--
(a) to be informed promptly, in language that the person understands, of--
(i) the reason for the arrest;
(ii) the right to remain silent; and
(iii) the consequences of not remaining silent.
(c) to communicate with an advocate, and other persons whose assistance is necessary;

Article 50
(2) Every accused person has the right to a fair trial, which includes the right--
(m) to have the assistance of an interpreter without payment if the accused person cannot understand the language used at the trial.
(3) If this Article requires information to be given to a person, the information shall be given in language that the person understands.
(7) In the interest of justice, a court may allow an intermediary to assist a complainant or an accused person to communicate with the court.

Article 54
(1) A person with any disability is entitled--
(a) to be treated with dignity and respect and to be addressed and referred to in a manner that is not demeaning;
(b) to access educational institutions and facilities for persons with disabilities that are integrated into society to the extent compatible with the interests of the person;
(c) to reasonable access to all places, public transport and information;
(d) to use Sign language, Braille or other appropriate means of communication; and
(e) to access materials and devices to overcome constraints arising from the person’s disability.
(2) The State shall ensure the progressive implementation of the principle that at least five percent of the members of the public in elective and appointive bodies are persons with disabilities.

Article 56
The State shall put in place affirmative action programs designed to ensure that minorities and marginalized groups--
(d) develop their cultural values, languages and practices

Article 120
(1) The official languages of Parliament shall be Kiswahili, English and Kenyan Sign language, and the business of Parliament may be conducted in English, Kiswahili and Kenyan Sign language.
(2) In case of a conflict between different language versions of an Act of Parliament, the version signed by the President shall prevail.

Article 259
(2) If there is a conflict between different language versions of this Constitution, the English language version prevails.

Quoting Professor Okoth Okombo of the University of Nairobi linguistics department the Deaf in Kenya are ‘a special linguistic minority….special because (the approximately 700-800,000 Deaf Kenyans) by nature of their disability cannot operate effectively in any of the spoken majority languages (English and Kiswahili)’.  This predicament brings us to the whys of the clamor for recognition of the language and thereby ‘legalization’ and use of KSL. One of the main pillars of language rights is the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration (of human rights) without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The freedom for private individuals to use a minority language in private correspondence or communications, including in private business or commercial correspondence, by telephone, electronic means; to have private displays such as outdoor commercial signs and posters, commercial signs, etc. of a private nature; the freedom to print in a minority language; the freedom to use a minority language in the conduct of private business and economic activities; even the right to create and operate private schools teaching in a minority language are all language rights. But their very nature is anchored, they originate, from existing human rights. (Varennes 2001: 5)

Failure to guarantee such uses of language amounts to a breach of an individual’s language rights. At another level, language rights can be explained by distinguishing language use in public. This includes the use of a language that an individual understands well both in court proceedings and court documents as universally recognised in international law as a basic “linguistic” right based on a fundamental human right (Varennes 2001: 6). The language uses at this level are also understood to include uses by public authorities: … such as public education using a minority language as a medium of instruction, public radio and television broadcasting in a minority language, use of minority language by public officials in the provision of services to the public (and therefore a major source of employment for individuals within the civil service) etc. (Varennes 2001: 6)

As Okombo (2001: 14–17) argues, the best languages for passing on information in Africa include not only the official and national languages but also the various indigenous languages, braille for the blind and sign language for the Deaf. The braille and sign language users are considered a disadvantaged minority whose language rights must be catered for. Okombo argues that it is not enough to use sign language in Kenya; rather, a local variety of the sign language, namely, Kenyan sign language is the most ideal language to use.

In addition, to the best of my knowledge, only the Kenya Institute of Special Education (KISE) and Kenyatta University have programmes training teachers for the handicapped. It is noted that members of the deaf community join school having learnt Kenyan sign language at home (Adoyo 2002). But at school they are subjected to either American sign English or sign exact English. The sequel of this practice is that the Deaf do not learn much. As if that is not enough, their blind counterparts have no reference materials published in braille. Thus blind people depend on the goodwill of their seeing colleagues to read for them. In this scenario, how sensitive are language planners to the language and democratic rights of the handicapped?

 Kenya is now ripe for a Kenyan Sign Language Act to streamline the issues above. 

In part two we will discuss the hows and the whens......



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