In Rwanda, deaf children who do not have a way to communicate do not attend school and are hidden and isolated from their community. As adults, deaf Rwandans are not able to participate and vote because political campaign and voting information are inaccessible to them and are being left behind.
According to the World Federation of the Deaf: “Language and culture are inseparable, and sign language(s) are a critical component of deaf culture and the deaf identity. Sign language is vital to every deaf person’s cognitive, social, emotional, and linguistic growth. Without early sign language exposure, deaf children are deprived of a strong language foundation.”
With a grant from the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund (DRAF), the Rwandan National Union of the Deaf (RNUD) leads a coalition with Media for Deaf Rwanda and the Human Rights First Rwanda Association to advocate for the recognition of Rwandan Sign Language as an official language. They are also developing a Rwandan Sign Language dictionary.
DRAF’s Kerry Thompson explains why this is important, “Sign language is a human right for people who are Deaf, DeafBlind, or hard of hearing. By recognizing sign language as a national language, we can achieve access to education, employment, healthcare, voting, and most importantly, to be part of a community.”
In widespread social media campaigns, Media for the Deaf Rwanda promotes sign language as a part of Rwandan culture. Kellya Uwiragiye, the Executive Director, explained, “The campaign was started with the aim of enlightening the Rwandan society about the existence of Rwandan sign language used by people with hearing impairments.”
During the 2017 presidential election campaign, the coalition conducted a massive social media campaign for the participation of deaf and hard of hearing people in voting. Political leaders, artists, business professionals, and media personalities used sign language to encourage them to vote.
RNUD also trained officials from the National Electoral Commision and political parties on how to conduct accessible and inclusive elections. In turn, the commission trained ballot officers on how to assist persons with disabilities at polling stations and provided ballots in Braille.
The coalition’s advocacy was recently recognized by CNN’s Inside Africa video, evidence that they are starting to be heard. The New Times, Rwanda’s daily newspaper, quoted a participant in the Media for Deaf campaign that it shares an important message about building a society in which everyone, including those with disabilities, have the chance to reach their full potential. He added, “From learning sign language and having interpretation at events to adding subtitles to videos, we can all play a part in supporting the deaf community.”
Samuel Munana, RNUD’s Executive Director declares, “Accessibility for us is to have sign language. Nothing for us without sign language.”