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Mum's (not) the word

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Rose Kwamboka | January 25th 2015
KTN sign language interpreter William Kamande Silla

For a man who reads news on a television station, William Silla should not be such a silent man.

But ironically, he talks a lot — through gestures.

The man who has a became a permanent fixture on KTN’s Prime Time News, but whose words are never heard, was once a mason.

He had no dreams whatsoever of being on national television, or learning a new “language” and becoming an interpreter whose skills would make many people understand events taking place in Kenya, and other countries.

But such is life.

A snobbish friend

In his previous profession, money was a problem, and the fact that he had a young family to take care of did not make matters any easier. That was in the 1990s.

Then one day, while going to a construction site, he bumped into a friend who was with a snobbish young man.

He did not understand why the young man, a primary school pupil who had not experienced life, or hardship as he had, would have an attitude.

He was wrong. He was also curious. He wanted to know what made the friend of his friend to have such a mien.

He did not know that the discovery would introduce him to a new way of communication — and change his life.

Amiable fellow

The friend of his friend was deaf. Being an amiable fellow, Silla quickly made friends with the young man, and decided to learn sign language.

After two years, he was good in it, but not perfect.

Even then, he became his friend’s interpreter, and he could also work at other places where such services were needed.

“I realised that if I was to perfect the art, I needed to practise my skills, especially during school days when my new friend was not around,” he says.

“So I joined a church frequented by the deaf. I interacted with them, to not only hone my skills, but learn more about them.”

Silla managed to perfect his art, but he could not practise it as much as he wanted, thanks to the system, and the society which did not give much consideration to people whose hearing is impaired, or their language, sign language.

After many years of lobbying, by different equal rights campaigners, more so those working with the disabled, sign language became one of Kenya’s official languages.

To ensure that the deaf or those whose hearing is impaired did not have to live in the dark, it was made a law, and TV stations are required to make the deaf part of their audience.

Act insufficient

Thus, Persons with Disabilities Act requires TV stations to not only have a sign language interpreter, but also to have a standardised sign language.

The Act requires them to “provide a sign language inset or sub-titles in all newscasts and educational programmes, and in all programmes covering events of national significance.”

Even then, there has been a feeling that the Act is insufficient and does not help much because a TV station can opt to have subtitles, and therefore still lock out the deaf who cannot read.

Enter Wanjiku Muhia, the Women’s Representative for Nyandarua County, and an advocate for persons with disabilities.

Ms Muhia, who has a sibling whose hearing is impaired, moved a Bill which, if it becomes law, will compel all TV stations to provide both subtitles and a sign language interpreter.

Sign language

So far, only two TV stations provide a sign language inset, and not during all their programmes.

Standard Group’s KTN was the first station to have a sign language interpreter, Silla, who started as a volunteer.

The hearing impaired have not been comfortable with the situation, and in 2013, a children’s rights organisation took a certain media house to court for their failure to have a sign language interpreter or subtitles for the children’s programmes.

“Media houses feel like they are doing the deaf a favour,” says Tausi Leonida Kaula, the chair of Kenya Sign Language Interpreters Association (KSLIA).

Need for training

It is that kind of feeling among media houses that made Silla decide to volunteer his services.

When he was hired, he knew that at least there are organisations which still care for the hearing impaired.

He reckons that the move by Standard Group meant a lot for the community of the deaf who now know who their friends are, and which TV station to switch to when they need information and entertainment.

“Though a step in the right direction, that small bottom right sign language insert is done by editors and graphic designers who need to be trained on how to handle issues to do with the hearing impaired,” says Tausi.

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