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Our eyes are our ears: The fight for Deaf rights in 13 inspiring photos

This summer, Deaf volunteers from the UK and Kenya came together in Nandi, 200 miles north of the capital, Nairobi.

Bringing different personal experiences of Deafness, these volunteers from two continents encouraged people across the region to rethink disability. From teaching sign language to a mother so she could communicate with her Deaf daughter for the first time, to helping the public question disability stigma, these ICS volunteers are leading the fight for Deaf rights.

A drone shot of a beautiful green hilly Kenyan landscape
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
In Kenya's hilly Nandi County, 750,000 people are aged under 35

1. 30,000 young people with hearing loss

Nandi is a hilly county in central Kenya. Three in four of Nandi’s 750,000 population are under 35 years old, and an estimated 5% have a form of hearing loss. But only a handful of specialist schools exist.


A girl playing the trumpet marches through a town centre
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
A group of local young people and ICS volunteers march through Nandi town to promote disability equality

2. Making noise about Deafness

As a result, misconceptions about disability are rife. It’s not unheard of for Deaf children to be seen as a ‘curse’ on the family. Thinking that there’s no hope for them in traditional schools where they can’t understand their teachers, parents often keep them at home to do the housework. 

An ICS volunteer wearing a hijab smiles at the front of a dark classroom
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Team Leader Raabia Hussain says ICS was the most life-changing three months of her life

3. “It’s so important young people are at the centre of this work”

“My time on ICS was overwhelming and very emotional because of the transformation we saw,” explained Team Leader Raabia Hussain, 25, from Oldham. “It’s been life-changing and the best 14 weeks of my life. It’s so important young people are at the centre of this work so we are taking a lead in changing the worldwide perceptions of disability and helping empower change.”

A group of teachers and students pose with a sign
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Students and teachers of Kapsabet School for the Deaf pose for a photo

4. Making sure our work is centred around the community

Students and teachers above, pictured outside Kapsabet School for the Deaf, an organisation which VSO and ICS have been working with for years. ICS volunteers help ensure that local children with special educational needs can access the schooling they deserve.

A local chief sits proudly smiling in her chair
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Local chief Priscilla Metto has had her understanding of disability changed

5. “We thought only Africans could be deaf”

“I remember an initial meeting with ICS exploring whether a project could work here,” explained local chief Priscilla Metto. “They explained that a team of Deaf volunteers would be coming over from the UK. We didn’t know mzungus [white people] could also be deaf! We thought it was only Africans.”


Two Kenyan ICS volunteers sit on a bed and play a board game
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Downtime from project work was an opportunity to get to know each other better

6. Making new friendships that will last a lifetime

Two Kenyan counterparts play a board game during some rare downtime from project work.


A volunteer holding a camera shows the screen to two volunteers
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Team Leader Raabia shows other volunteers the footage
Volunteer with a camera captures video of a child on a swing
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Here, Raabia captures video for her documentary

7. “I’m really proud of the stories I captured here”

In addition to Raabia’s hectic schedule as Team Leader on the ICS project, she was also busy with one of her other passions – filmmaking. As a producer for TV channel ITV back in her home city of Manchester, she’s an expert at telling people’s stories. And on ICS, that didn’t stop. She brought her kit with her to film a documentary about life in Nandi county for those with disabilities.

“We filmed the story of a mother with two disabled children,” said Raabia. “It was a heart-warming to see a mother who was so enthusiastic about ensuring her children got the full support they deserved. Although filming on placement was one of the hardest experiences during my time as a filmmaker, I’m really proud of the stories I captured here.”


Local people march holding a sign about the importance of sign language
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Kenyan Sign Language is used by half of the east African country's estimated 600,000 deaf population

8. Have you heard of Kenyan Sign Language?

You might have heard of British or American sign language – but what about Kenyan Sign Language (KSL)? It’s exists of its own right, and as of 2010, is written into the country’s constitution as an indigenous language. It’s currently used by half of Kenya’s 600,000 deaf population.


A volunteer teaches children sign language
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
ICS volunteers have been trying to make Kenyan Sign Language a part of every child's education

9. A future where all students can communicate

But although Kenyan Sign Language is recognised by the government of Kenya as an official language, it’s not widely taught. ICS volunteers are hoping to change that. On placement, they worked in local schools, delivering KSL sessions so hearing children can communicate with their peers with hearing loss.


A volunteer speaks with the parent of a Deaf child
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Mother Nuru Hassan speaks with an ICS volunteer
A mother speaks to her Deaf child using sign language
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Nuru and her six-year-old Deaf daughter Heavenlights

10. “People think my child’s Deafness is a curse”

“Some thought she was a curse,” mother Nuru Hassan explains, as she describes public attitudes towards her six-year-old daughter, Heavenlights. “Some thought I’d tried to use medication to abort my baby and failed. People have different views on how they see me.

“Things were hard. And previously we couldn’t communicate. We couldn’t understand each other. Our languages were different. But now we’re learning sign language together, I’m enjoying it because it means we can talk and connect as mother and daughter.”


Two disabled members of the community stand together
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Volunteers have been showing that disability isn't inability

11. We are all abled differently

We couldn’t say it better ourselves.


© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Volunteer Lauren Feeney speaks about mental health awareness
Parents listen to volunteers delivering a mental health session
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Parents listen to volunteers delivering a mental health session

12. Showing that not all disabilities are visible

And it’s not just about being aware of physical disabilities. In this session, UK volunteer Lauren Feeney helps raise awareness about invisible disabilities like mental illness.


Volunteers speaking together in sign language
© ICS / Paul Wambugu
Volunteers learnt more about their shared and different Deaf culture

13. Sharing each other’s culture

There’s obvious differences in British and Kenyan Deaf culture yet so many unifying similarities too. ICS volunteers Enock Ongwae, Lauren Feeney, Raabia Hussain and Doreen Sirengo enjoyed spending 12 weeks learning about differences in language, food and society, and connecting in ways they could never have imagined.

And their work hasn’t finished here. Now they’re back home, they’re running their own Action at Home projects – work that includes Raabia finishing her documentary to make sure her local community in the UK can learn more about disability stigma too.

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ICS is funded by the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), which projects the UK as a force for good in the world, including reducing poverty and tackling global challenges.

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