Kenyan Sign Language Testing - Are we perpetuating a failed system?

The education of learners with disabilities (special needs) in Kenya has been embraced by the Kenya government as reflected in several policy documents including the Children’s Act 2001, the declaration of Free Primary Education in January 2003, the provisions of the Disabilities Act 2003 and the Sessional Paper No. 1 of 2005 on the Policy Framework for Education, Training and Research which guarantee the education and employment of all persons without discrimination.

In Kenya, special education existed long before independence since special schools such as Thika School for the Blind was established in 1946 by the Salvation Army (a church based organization). However, no guidelines were put in place to guide special education issues including examinations. Through the recommendations of the various education commissions in Kenya, the government has stressed the importance of the education of the disabled in order to assist them to acquire a suitable foundation for the world of work so as to contribute to self and society.

Education for learners with disabilities (special needs) has for a long time been provided in special schools and special units attached to regular schools. The government adapted inclusive education to give opportunities to learners with disabilities (challenged learners) to receive education alongside their 'normal' counterparts in the same environment. Following the introduction of Free Primary Education (FPE) in 2003, large numbers of children with disabilities (special needs) were enrolled in regular schools.

The suitability of the regular curriculum and existing school facilities became an issue for educationists. This led to the formation of a Task Force on Special Needs Education in 2003 to look into the educational needs of Special Needs Learners. The task force recommended among other things that syllabuses for specialized areas be developed for immediate implementation and that the Kenya National Examinations Council establishes a section with staff who are qualified in Special Needs Examination Administration to handle all SNE examinations. The Task force further recommended that: -
·examinations for candidates with low vision be adapted considering their different visual acuity;
·brailled examinations be marked directly without de-brailling;
·supervision and invigilation of candidates with SNE be done by personnel qualified in the various areas of special needs education;
·school based examinations be developed to provide certification for learners with SNE who may not be in a position to sit for national examinations;
·Kenyan sign language be examined at both KCPE and KCSE levels once the curriculum is developed and approved;
·examination for learners who are blind be presented using different grades of Braille to cater for their diversity;
·examinations for candidates with low vision be adapted considering their different visual acuity;
·brailled examinations be marked directly without de-brailling;
·supervision and invigilation of candidates with SNE be done by personnel qualified in the various areas of special needs education;
·school based examinations be developed to provide certification for learners with SNE who may not be in a position to sit for national examinations;
·Kenyan sign language be examined at both KCPE and KCSE levels once the curriculum is developed and approved;
·examination for learners who are blind be presented using different grades of Braille to cater for their diversity;
·language examinations especially in literature and other subjects for deaf (hearing impaired) be adapted;
·taped examinations be developed for candidates who may require them;
·time allocation for learners with SNE be determined on the basis of the nature and severity of disability;
·alternative modes of communication e.g. use of computers and typewriters be allowed for candidates who require them
The government put mechanisms for early assessment and identification by establishing special education units in the districts. Teachers for special education are specifically trained at the Kenya Institute of Special Education (KISE) which also coordinates the assessment of children with special needs. However, due to the diversity of learners with special need, the curriculum developers and the Kenya National Examinations Council is only able to adapt the curriculum and assessment methodology for only a limited group of special needs learners while many others are left to fit within the general educational assessment patterns.
In order for learners with special needs to benefit from the education system in Kenya, the Kenya National Examinations Council has found various ways and means in which assessment for these learners can be made more adaptable to the needs of such learners through differentiation, adaptation and modification of its examinations, and examination management. Examinations offered by the KNEC are terminal, summative and their main purpose is for selection, placement and certification. The examinations are norm-referenced and are therefore not suitable for the needs of certain types of special needs learners. KNEC develops or adapts examinations using the adapted curriculum developed by KISE and where such curriculum does not exist, and then SNE learners are left to fit within the regular curriculum.
Differentiation in the curriculum may take 4 forms namely the development of:
·an adopted curriculum which involves the adoption of the regular curriculum as it is but focusing the objectives from the non-handicapped learners to the handicapped;
·an adapted curriculum where the true curriculum is tailored to the needs of the handicapped learners e.g. the adapted physical education curriculum. Thus modifications or adaptations are made to suit the handicapped learners;
·specialized curriculum – the regular curriculum is exhaustively examined to determine whether the learner would be able to cope with it. Modifications are then made but retaining the core characteristics of the regular curriculum structures as a basis;
·specialist curriculum which is an entirely separate curriculum developed with a particular target group in mind. It aims at meeting specific needs of the children e.g. physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and self
Special consideration for challenged learners is made from the time of registration for examinations to the issue of results. It must, however, be noted that in all these arrangements the reliability and validity of tests must be maintained. Special Needs examinations are currently administered for the Visually Impaired (V.I.) which includes blind and those with low vision, hearing Impaired (H.I.), physically and mentally handicapped. The KNEC also administers examinations to cases under special circumstances in hospitals and prisons. These candidates take the KCPE, KCSE, PTE and Technical examinations.

In 2010 the Council introduce the Kenya Sign Language as an examination subject as a language option in place of Kiswahili which is currently compulsory at the KCPE and KCSE levels. Differentiation for the deaf  include:
·the exclusion of those aspects that touch on sound and metaphoric expressions from their test papers;
·time allocation:-20-30 extra minutes;
·allowing a sign language literate teacher to be part of the examination invigilation team.
From KNEC annual analysis of performance we find that the Deaf schools perform dismally in the Exams esp in the English exam – but then again all the exams are written in English. This English superior attitudinal aspect of the Kenyan education system is very unkind to the Deaf learner who uses English as a read, written language. Most of the communication happening within the class room with Deaf students is predominately in pure Kenyan Sign Language. It is a pity to always watch teachers – graduates of special education courses, meaning well and trying their best struggling with a manual code that the students find hard to comprehend and unnatural. Signed Exact English – SEE is the worst thing our educationists resorted to after they left oralism, total communication methods and approaches. In a bid to help the Deaf child learn to write English the teachers have created a monster code that the kids force themselves to learn, the result all Deaf children become robots and zombies of some sort when in class learning the dreaded Englsih – when they are on break or left on their own they become alive, natural sharing everything from gossip, laughter, stories, jokes and highly academic discourse. Hence I observe and ask, why do we do the Kenyan Sign Language Examination at KCSE/KCPE level in the current format?- Are we perpetuating a failed system?

The script above from KNEC offers specific opportunities for the Deaf learners to get out of an oppressive system that is designed to produce failure - not that there are no Deaf Kenyans who have done well very well in the KNEC exams, there are many.... Why should the Deaf children be examined in these #Kalongolongos?




Some useful reads are here:




However the main problem remain four fold:-

A. Lack of comprehensive research, documentation and knowledge transfer between Deaf community and teachers of the Deaf in regards to Kenyan Sign Language, Deaf culture and learning styles of the Deaf.

B. Promotion and use of Glossed English in the Examination system. there needs to be a a forward move away from Glossed English, Signed Exact English and other manual codes and language systems to Kenyan Sign Language. This is an attitudinal change, Kenyan Sign Language in it's richness and entirety is rich enough to teach literature, poetry, Swahili, English and virtually any field however our learned teachers have an attitude against this....thus the ill informed decision to remove teaching of Swahili and Music for the Deaf in schools - a disadvantage and oppressive policy denying the Deaf the opportunity to enjoy those subjects. Glossed English advocates have a special space in hell, I often pray that they will pay for the stigma they loaded on the Deaf children who have suffered in silence. Technology has blessed Kenya with very rich innovation ecosystem, we have smart computer application innovations that would digitize Kenyan Sign Language examinations by use of videos for compositions, narratives and 'writing' for the Deaf since Kenyan Sign Language is a three dimensional visual language perfect for video and animation - KNEC do away with the papers - usher in the digital age in Kenyan examination settings.

C. Lack of proper foundation for Deaf children ages 0 - 7 years. The current low literacy and cognitive skills in the Deaf children is due to minimal of total lack of opportunities to develop their language, communication skills early like their speaking counterparts. There is need to invest in proper Deaf oriented early childhood education incorporating the Deaf child, the parents and teacher. The opportunity to develop a strong language base and foundation sets up the deaf child for success. This would be achieved by having the school environment filled with adult Deaf language mentors, peer - peer language transfer, Deaf teacher reinforcement and parents able to use sign language once the child goes back home.This partnership presents a huge opportunity for programmers to create projects targeting parents, teachers especially Deaf and for ECD at the county level and ECD establishments.

D. Few Deaf teachers - there has been huge steps to have at least each school of the Deaf to have a Deaf teacher however we still need more!!! The more the Deaf pupil sees a Deaf teacher, teaching various subjects and holding leadership positions and an authority figure the psyche of the student, morale and ambition is triggered to achieve and perform better. There is power in Role Models for the Deaf. TSC and Ministry of Education should do more to empower the Deaf to join the teaching profession.

When we do these things we will halt the perpetual failing wheel and create a cycle of success for the Deaf in Kenya. I am reminded here of a project that was dear to my heart - the Global Deaf Connection - creating the cycle of success one teacher, one school at a time! Could the Kenya National Association of the Deaf - KNAD revive this project?

Written April 2015 by Jack Owiti, Interpreter and Author the Dancing Interpreter Diaries


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