By John Oywa
The young man mumbled and gestured desperately protesting his innocence as the police took him away.
He finally broke down in tears trying to explain the turn of events. Using sign language the officers did not understand, the deaf man explained that it was his neighbour who had attempted to rape a girl, not him.
But the police did not understand, and if they did, did not care. He was placed under police custody before his release without charge four days later.
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The incident in Rabuor village near Kisumu, typifies the legal hurdles deaf people routinely face.
Cases of mistaken identity are common and wheels of justice grind even slower due to lack of sign language interpreters.
For the deaf, things are getting harder, The Standard has established. The few sign language experts have left the Judiciary for better paying jobs in the private sector.
Kenya National Association for the Deaf (KNAD) Chairman Nickson Kakiri says only seven sign language interpreters are employed by the Judiciary to cover all the eight provinces. He says with an estimated more than 800,000 deaf people in Kenya, the number is a drop in the ocean.
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Three sign language interpreters are deployed in Nairobi, one in Eldoret (covering the vast Rift Valley); Kisumu has one covering Nyanza and Western provinces, as does Mombasa.
The shortage of interpreters mean the available are overworked, with some covering up to three provinces.
"The implication is that many deaf people with cases before different courts have to wait long before securing services of interpreters," said a Judiciary official in Nairobi.
"I know of cases involving the deaf which have been pending for more than a year because the interpreters are overworked and have to travel long distances on public transport to appear in courts," he adds.
Besides judicial hiccups, people with disabilities in Kenya are often victims of human rights abuses.
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Early this year, The Standard revealed published accounts of deaf girls who had been impregnated by their teachers at Kuja Primary School for the Deaf in Rongo District. One girl gave birth to twins and later dropped out of school.
School authorities and the Ministry of Education denied claims of sexual abuse at the institution.
A deaf teacher who blew the whistle was subsequently transferred under controversial circumstances, even after he wrote to the Teachers Service Commission requesting protection.
The deaf have learnt to compete and succeed in harsh environments where authorities hardly implements policies on the Disability Act, which accords them equal rights in schools, hospitals, colleges and other institutions.
Using their ten index fingers, people with hearing and speech disabilities can weave through even through the most complex of conversations.
They also sing and work out mathematical calculations using sign language. They have shattered barriers and some are seeking leadership positions in various fields. The association for the deaf wants the Government to deploy more sign language experts in the Judiciary, the police force, hospitals and prisons.
"How do doctors attend to deaf people when they do not understand sign language? Isn’t it high time the Government employed interpreters in hospitals?" asked Mr Kakiri.
The electronic media, he says have also alienated the deaf. "There are no sign language experts in the studios to help the deaf people follow news on television," he charged, adding his association is calling for more schools for the deaf across the country. There are about only 40 schools for the deaf across the country.
"We need to establish a modern school for the deaf in every province because there are many children with hearing disabilities who cannot attend normal schools. KNAD also wants the composition of school BOGs in deaf institutions re-instituted to include deaf people," said Jared Osome, the chairman of the South Nyanza Association for the deaf.
He added: "Some schools do not even have deaf teachers while those employed either by TSC or school boards have to endure frequent intimidation, mistreatment especially those who raise issues affecting the deaf pupils."
He said most special teachers including the principals cannot even use sign language fluently yet they are expected to serve deaf pupils. "Some education inspectors assigned to monitor special schools, Mr Osome said, do not even know Sign Language.
"I have an experience where a hearing inspector visited my class at high school. He just came in, sat at the back after brief introduction by class teacher and began taking notes smiling now and then. All the while we veered off the lesson topic and were just busy discussing him," said a deaf human rights activist who sought anonymity.
Kakiri says deaf students in middle level colleges are learning through difficulties because the institutions have not employed sign language interpreters.
He says the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability, which Kenya is a signatory, states all institutions, including schools and hospitals should be accessible to people with disabilities.
Kenya Sign Language Association Treasurer Monica Nyambura says there are many unemployed sign language experts who should be employed to help the deaf.
"We have over 50 members and many others who have not registered," says Ms Nyambura.
Late last year, people with disabilities put a spirited fight to have sign language enshrined in the Draft Constitution as one of the official languages, but the Committee of Experts and the Parliamentary Select Committee dashed their hopes.
Recently, the Government unveiled Sh200 million grant to help people with disabilities start small business.