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The Uniqueness of Being Differently Abled- Bringing the AGP into the Uganda School for the Deaf

(Photo: Coach Carol using sign language with the girls)

This year, Girl Up Initiative Uganda has begun working with differently abled adolescent girls at the Uganda School for the Deaf - Ntinda under the Adolescent Girls Program with funding from the Segal Family Foundation pitch competition. Expanding into a school with differently abled girls is a new and exciting endeavor for our team. The Girl Up Initiative Uganda facilitators have had to learn new ways to communicate with the girls, which has been both challenging and rewarding.

In Uganda, deafness is the most common disability, affecting more than 360,000 children under the age of 18 years. However, deaf children are often absent when it comes to accessing youth programming on sexual health. Given challenges with communicating with peers, teachers and health workers, deaf girls are often left out of critical conversations about relationships, peer pressure, sexual health, and puberty. Most deaf people have difficulty communicating with those who do not understand sign language. This is most dangerous for girls if they experience sexual violence and/or abuse and may go along with these behaviours since may be uninformed about the possible consequences. Even if they report these cases to the police it is common that they are ignored and suspects are not arrested as police fail to record statements from the survivors due to communication barriers or due to negative attitudes towards deaf people.

These challenges exist within a society that holds stigma and discrimination against differently abled children. Children with special needs are normally isolated from the society because of their differences and there exist misconceptions that deaf children are unable to learn. In Uganda, many deaf children and their families are stigmatised by their communities because deafness is not understood and parents are unaware of available services or don’t understand the potential their deaf child could achieve with the right support. It is also quite common for communities to believe that differently abled children are cursed or that their parents did something to annoy God and therefore, they were punished by having children who are differently abled. These prevailing myths discriminate deaf children and lead to violations of their human rights.

Because of these traditional myths and challenges, many parents deny their differently abled children a chance to obtain an education. They may lack access to schools that cater to children with special needs, be afraid that no one will understand their children, or fear disclosing their secret in the community. Thus, many Ugandan deaf children, especially girls who are particularly vulnerable, fail to receive the support and knowledge they need from an early age.

(Photo: Girls greeting our team)

Therefore, bringing the Adolescent Girls Program into the Ntinda School for the Deaf is our way to respond to the specific challenges that deaf girls face in Uganda and provide them with the same opportunities to gain knowledge and skills as abled girls. Through our year-long training program adolescent girls who are differently abled are provided with information on communication, menstruation, sexual and reproductive health, relationships, and more to improve their confidence and self-esteem so they can thrive as leaders in their homes, schools, communities and the whole nation. With this information and skills, they will be able to reach out to other differently abled girls and create a network that will provide advice, support and mentorship.

During the introduction of the program, the girls were very excited to join the program and learn more. They used sign language to communicate to their peers “they have come to teach us about menstruation”. Menstruation is a topic that the girls are especially interested in learning more about. As Viola, one of the Girl Up girls said,

“When I am in my periods and I don’t have pads I sometimes just remain in the dormitory because I feel shy and uncomfortable about it.”

In the coming months, our team will lead our “you and your changing body” session together with teaching them how to make their own reusable sanitary pads.

According to their head teacher, deaf children are very sensitive and have difficulty paying attention when they are tired or bored. This has meant that our trainers must take a new approach to training the girls. Our facilitators have been very creative in keeping them engaged through fun activities, games and role plays. For instance, during our most recent session on self-esteem and body image, the girls acted out a role play that they created about body image. There were two girls on each side saying mean things to the other, such as “you are too fat”, “you are very skinny”, etc. The one receiving the mean message, responded with “you may say that, but I know that I am beautiful”. The sense of this play was to get the girls to appreciate their bodies just the way they are without allowing some else to undermine them because of their appearance. This boosted their confidence and encouraged them to believe in themselves.

(Photo: Preparing for the role play)

As part of this session, we also had them complete a simple exercise to say why they love themselves. We received the following responses:

“I love myself because I am differently abled”- Nanteza

“I love myself because I am well behaved”- Shalom

The girls learned the importance of affirming their positive qualities and accepting who they are with gratitude. This will serve them in the future so that they will not be affected by the put downs of others or allow others to take advantage of or abuse them.

While some may call deafness a disability, we call it differently abled. From our time with these girls, we have witnessed the uniqueness in the way they communicate and understand each other. The challenges they face when they are not able to communicate, interact, socialise and play with other children who are not like them are many, but the fact that they keep their heads held high and don’t allow others to take advantage of them is their strength. As Coach Carol said after the latest training: “These girls are not shy, but instead they are bold and loving to be around.”

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