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Expanding horizons for deaf youth in Kenya: Harrison’s story

Volunteer Harrison Kariuki is on a mission to end stigma and improve the lives of deaf young people in Kenya. He explains why he’s determined to change attitudes.

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, VSO volunteer Harrison Kariuki, 28, understands these struggles all too well.

Struggling and excluded

“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.

“I tried my level 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 getting involved with me, thinking that because I was deaf I’d affect them in some way.

“My parents weren’t sure where to send me to school, so at first I went to a mainstream school, and then a school for children with learning disabilities. Then my dad’s sister told him about a school for deaf children, so after being examined at the hospital I was enrolled there. For the first time, I was taught sign language and could finally communicate properly.

“When I finished school I went to university to study a diploma in special education, but this came with new challenges. I didn’t have the ability 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 myself so we could communicate.”

ICS volunteers taught Kenyan Sign Language to parents and their deaf children Jeff de Kock

ICS volunteers taught Kenyan Sign Language to deaf children and their parents, enabling them to communicate effectively for the first time.

Waking up

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 VSO. In 2016, he joined an all-deaf team of ICS volunteers from Kenya and the UK, teaching business and entrepreneurship skills to deaf young people.

“We also taught basic sign language to the parents of deaf children and raised awareness about the use of sign language in Nandi more widely. 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.

“On ICS, you get to work with different people and put your knowledge to direct use in the community. Before the ICS volunteers came, it’s like the deaf people were in a deep sleep.”

Students at Kapsabet School for the Deaf Jeff de Kock

Students at Kapsabet School for the Deaf, where Harrison works as a professional VSO volunteer.

A responsibility to change perceptions

Motivated by the impact his team made, Harrison has continued his involvement with VSO and is now a professional volunteer at Kapsabet School for the Deaf.

“By teaching sign language to my students, I’m 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. Disability is not inability. I want my students to work hard and emerge victorious, proving wrong the society undermining them.”

A dream come true

In December 2018, Harrison was nominated in the VSO Volunteer Impact Awards. Winning the In-Country Volunteer category, 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. I was so excited and very proud because I was the first deaf person to be nominated for an award. I realised that my ability is greater than my deafness.

“It was amazing visiting London for the ceremony. I had some great moments reconnecting with my ICS counterparts from 2016, seeing the museums and even going to the Arsenal stadium – it was a dream come true!

Harrison with the other winners of the VSO Volunteer Impact Awards Becky Mursell
Harrison speaking with VSO Patron, HRH Princess Anne, at the VSO Volunteer Impact Awards Becky Mursell

Harrison was one of the winners at the VSO Awards in London, where he met VSO's Patron HRH Princess Anne.

Harrison with his trophy at the VSO Volunteer Impact Awards Becky Mursell

Inspired by the recognition of his work that he received at the VSO Awards, Harrison is determined to continue fighting for deaf rights.

Looking to the future

“Winning this award has really inspired me and I feel like this is just the beginning. I will keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone and doing more to ensure that our society is inclusive at all levels. 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 he has some 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 benefit you if you were on the other side, and always work on policies and laws you’d be comfortable living with if you joined this club.”