Growing up as the only deaf child in a hearing family, ICS volunteer Harrison Kariuki, 28, understands the fight for disability rights in Kenya better than most. He’s now devoted his life to educating people about disability and helping parents connect with their deaf children.
Imagine growing up in a world where no one understands you. Where you’re unable to clearly express your most basic thoughts and feelings to your family. Where you’re not allowed to play with other children because their parents consider you different, even contagious.
For many deaf children in Kenya, this is their reality.
In a country where disability is often seen as a curse, deaf children are frequently denied access to education and social opportunities, hidden away by their families. Growing up as the only deaf child in a hearing family, Harrison understands these struggles all too well.
“Communication was a major challenge as neither my family members nor neighbours knew any sign language. This meant that I was left out most of the time,” said Harrison.
“I tried my best to involve myself, using gestures and joining other children in the games they were playing. But I could see some parents warning their children against interacting with me. They thought that because I was deaf I’d affect them in some way.”
I taught my classmates sign language so they could understand me
In Kenya, a good score on their primary education exams is 350 out of 500. Most deaf children score closer to 100. Harrison’s parents were unsure what was best for his education.
A lack of understanding of sign language and deaf culture by the majority of teachers in Kenya’s education system means that for deaf children, progress in mainstream schools is often stalled.
“At first I went to a mainstream school, then a school for children with learning disabilities. Then after being examined at the hospital I was enrolled at a school for deaf children. For the first time, I was taught sign language and could finally communicate,” he explains.
“When I finished school I went to university, but this came with new challenges. I couldn’t afford to pay for a sign language interpreter and, as my university wouldn’t provide one for me, I ended up having to copy notes from my hearing friends.
“I went as far as teaching them basic sign language skills so we could communicate.”
I want my deaf students to emerge victorious
After graduating, Harrison moved to Nandi in Kenya’s southwestern highlands, working as a teacher of geography and Kenyan Sign Language. It was here that he learnt about ICS and, in 2016, joined an all-deaf team of ICS volunteers from Kenya and the UK.
His team taught business and entrepreneurship skills to deaf young people in the region, as well as basic sign language to the parents of deaf children.
“People in Nandi used to think that Deaf and other disabled people were useless and that we couldn’t achieve anything in our lives, but now they understand more about disability,” he said.
Motivated by the impact his team made, Harrison has continued his work as a VSO professional volunteer at Kapsabet School for the Deaf. Through teaching sign language to his students, he’s empowering them to advocate for their rights and have a positive future.
“I believe we have a responsibility to change perceptions and show that deaf people can do what everyone else can – except hear,” said Harrison. “Disability is not inability. I want my students to work hard and emerge victorious, proving wrong the society that is undermining them.”
My ability is greater than my deafness
In December 2018, Harrison won the In-Country Volunteer Award at VSO’s annual awards ceremony. He flew to London to attend the ceremony and meet VSO’s patron, HRH Princess Anne.
“I couldn’t believe it when I found out,” he said. “I was so excited and very proud because I was the first deaf person to be nominated. I realised that my ability is greater than my deafness.
“It was amazing visiting London. I had some great moments reconnecting with my ICS counterparts, seeing the museums and even going to Arsenal – it was a dream come true.
But winning the award is just the beginning for Harrison.
“I will keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone and doing more to ensure that our society is inclusive at all levels,” he added. “I want to encourage more deaf people to volunteer and share their skills, changing attitudes towards disability.
“Many disabled people in Kenya are still suffering. Children are kept at home and denied an education. I hope that by 2030, disabled people across the country will have equal access to quality education and other services.”
And Harrison has some final words of advice for decision makers everywhere
“Disability is a club that doesn’t require a membership fee. It’s free and can be joined by anyone at any time. Think about what would help you if you moved to the other side, and always work on policies and laws you’d be comfortable living with if you joined this club.”