Interpreter Services in Kenya - A Critical Analysis of Interpreter Services for the Deaf in Kenya

Interpreter Services in Kenya - A Critical Analysis of Interpreter Services for the Deaf in Kenya

"....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." Professor Okoth Okombo of the University of Nairobi linguistics department 

On behalf of the Deaf community in Kenya, the Kenya National Association of the Deaf – KNAD – a non-governmental organization registered in 1987 with the government of Kenya under the Registrar of Societies Act of 1968 rule 4 representing approximately 600-800,000 Deaf people in Kenya; I address this topic wearing three hats as a Hearing Kenyan, Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) User and finally as an Interpreter. These three qualifications among others gives me enough reference point and authority to speak on this issue.

It is estimated that Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) is the first and preferred language of between 700-800,000 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. KNAD believes that official recognition of KSL would bring clear benefits to many thousands of Deaf people in terms of improved access to information and essential services. 

As a country we have already made a significant commitment to protect the rights and improve services of the Kenyan Deaf people by the enactment of the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2003, Kenya has also ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on 18th 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 which defines sign languages as national languages, more to say, they are considered equal to spoken national languages. The key to the achievement of Deaf people’s basic rights in Kenya is to respect the right to use Kenyan Sign Language.

strongly believes that recognition of Kenyan Sign Language in the new Constitution, under the following articles 
Article 7(b) the state shall 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. 
specifying it as one of the national and official languages to which 700 – 800,000 Kenyans use in their everyday lives in their homes, churches, mosques, schools, in commerce, in courts, meetings, social events and official business it will uphold our national values and principles of Chapter 3 of the draft will promote the participation of the Kenyan Deaf people in public affairs, to share in the devolution of power and ensuring full participation of the Deaf - men, women, youth and children persons with disabilities, a marginalized  socio-linguistic minority community in the political, social and economic life of the nation of Kenya. 


With these developments demand for qualified Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) interpreters is rapidly growing and is impacting the deaf community. Current indications are that Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) will be the new emerging language in Kenya. The new constitution  gives KSL preeminence on the clauses addressing issues of persons with disabilities as a language of communication for the Deaf in Kenya. The Kenya National Examination Council in January 2010 issued a circular making KSL an examinable subject in equal stature with English and Kiswahili. There is also an increasing number of students in Tertiary and Universities requiring the services of qualified, certified and competent interpreters. Kenya and the region is also budding with international conferences and forums involving the Deaf citizens thus widening the opportunities for interpreters.

Current training programs are unable to keep up with the increased demand for highly-trained interpreters with a nationwide interpreter shortage as the result. The Kenyan Sign Language Interpreters Association (KSLIA), the national professional associations of sign language interpreters, Kenya National Association of the Deaf – KNAD, Global Deaf Connections and the Ministry of Education have also recognized the insufficient numbers of interpreters available to meet the market’s demand. The issues identified have been the lack of interpreter training programs, although some colleges, universities and private companies with interpreter training programs are aware of the need for improved quality and availability of training, many are simply unaware of the extent of the interpreter shortage in the community.

The Deaf Aid project Kenya Registry of Interpreters and Transliterates for the Deaf (KRITD) in its white paper declared a “national interpreter crisis in the quantity, quality and qualifications of interpreters.” This white paper identifies how stakeholders can collaborate to marshal resources to increase and improve interpreter training programs to help meet the urgent demand to train larger numbers of new interpreters and upgrade the qualifications of existing interpreters. The Persons with Disabilities Act (PWD Act 2003) requires public institutions to provide “qualified readers or interpreters and other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities” The major need is in public schools and higher education, but health care providers, hospitals, courts, public safety and other government offices are also seeing increased demand.

Simultaneously, Deaf consumers of interpreting services have become more informed and are demanding higher quality interpreting services that meet their individual needs. Consumers and consumer organizations have expressed interest in being substantively involved in the identification, development, and delivery of the educational opportunities provided through these proposed areas of intervention. 

In order to train qualified interpreters to better meet the demand from consumers and consumer organizations, interpreter educators must be sufficient in number and be knowledgeable of current best practices. I suggest that the interpreter community in Kenya needs to embrace a three Cs that would change this profession.

  1. Certification - the need to transform the learning methodology of interpreters. Currently any otieno, kariuki, musyoki, njeri, kalekye and nasimuyu goes into a church for the Deaf, school or a local training program and by three months they are declared a trained interpreter after learning basic sign language. There is more to learning a language than a 3 month course on vocabulary, signs and finger spelling. The Kenya Sign Language Research Project at the University of Nairobi needs to be transformed into a Deaf Studies Institute or its slumbering sister the Kenya Institute of Special Education (KISE) could pick up that role. There is a curriculum at Kenya Institute of Education (KIE), there are examining bodies and quality assurance standards worldwide that can ensure we have professionals in this field. Teachers, Plumbers, Lawyers, Accountants etc have certification processes that qualify one to be in the cohort. Interpreters have no other option - get trained, get certified. I have held the position that we need to take the KIE curriculum, train an initial Core Trainers, Replicate this over the 47 Counties and develop a certification program through the various levels of tertiary education - certificates, diplomas and degrees. However since our academicians respect degrees and schools KNAD would partner with various universities to offer training for Deaf Studies, Deaf Education, Interpreting and Linguistics. 
  2. Continuing Education - Skill upgrade is important it is a core component of 1 above. 
  3. Conflict Resolution - KNAD (the Deaf) KSLIA (Interpreters) and Government of Kenya (public) would have a forum to deal with professional tort issues with this third pillar. Since human interpretation will never be perfect and standardized there are ethical issues to be considered in this consumer/service provider dispute resolution mechanism.
To address these issues and to contribute toward the education and training of a sufficient number of qualified interpreters to meet the communications needs of individuals who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and individuals who are Deaf-blind, there needs to be a move to provide legislation in the form of a Kenya Sign Language Bill or Kenya Language policy that will govern the issues described above. Since these are a far off, in the immediate future the three Cs remain a good foundation for KNAD, KSLIA and other stakeholders need to critically think about.

As we debate the almost 800,000 Deaf Kenyans go about life not fully getting the information about  voter registration, insecurity in Baragoi/Tana Delta or a lecture at the university hall or classroom or during the 9 o'clock bulletin - you may ask but they could read the papers? due to the poor quality of teaching methods in the schools for the Deaf literacy remain low. That is a discussion for another day - however it touches heavily on the access to information to persons with disabilities and the Deaf are not the only ones affected

the best languages for passing on information in Kenya include not only the official and national languages but also the various indigenous languages, braille for the blind and sign language for the Deaf. Okombo 2001

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