I tapped into my disability to build my thriving business
By Meresia Aloo | April 7th 2021
For a boy who loved music, absolute stillness was something that made him very uncomfortable.
Now a young man, tall and unassuming, he walks with a confident gait. He seems to have embraced the quiet of his world, a quiet that would have once broken him.
It is only when he makes gestures with his hands to communicate that you realise that he is deaf. But he wasn’t always deaf. At age eight, Lawrence Musili fell ill. He had contracted typhoid and meningitis, which led to two years of hospitalisation at the Kenyatta National Hospital. Also, the bout would cause damage to the nerves in his ears. His hearing got impaired permanently.
Through an arduous journey, he eventually found his feet. Today, he owns and runs five branches of the Horizon Sign Language Training Centre. Here, he is living his life’s purpose of making it a better world for people like him. He shares his business journey.
Have you fully embraced your loss of hearing?
Yes, I have had to. It was a difficult journey because most of all, I loved music. It was a frightening world, a space devoid of music, and it took me a long while to realise that this was it; that I was deaf. But I did, eventually. I moved from a regular school to a special school, where I picked up sign language.
With time, I learned how to accept myself and live with my condition. I am very happy now and I am not ashamed to be identified as deaf whenever I am with hearing people. I carry my state with pride and that is why I started the centre.
Was learning sign language easy?
Oh, not at all. Sign language is very difficult. In fact, I only mastered the concept in the second term in school. But it really helped when I did, as I felt a sense of belonging, I was now a member of the deaf family. That helped in my journey of acceptance. In college, I took a diploma course at the Kenya Institute of Social Work and Community Development. I just copied notes and revised them on my own in the library. Then I proceeded to the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science.
When did you start the training centre?
In 2016, I was four years into employment when I felt that there was an opportunity to be explored in teaching sign language. I was also confident that I had the skills I needed to start on my own. I had no other entrepreneurial ideas to explore at the time and I really wanted to break the communication barriers in our society. My goal was to train basic service providers and members of the general public to enable them to offer deaf-friendly services.
Did you believe you would succeed?
I wasn’t sure. I just wanted to try and see what would happen. I was to implement my plan in two years, and if it collapsed, I would put that on my CV and hope that a potential employer would notice my effort. But I succeeded.
At first, I enlisted the help of two friends Zablon Kangara as an accountant and Martin Njoroge to assist in operations. He is now a teacher in one of the branches. Then I secured some rent-free space from the county government and got my first students from social media. That was our humble beginning. And from referrals from the first batch of students, new students began streaming in.
When do you think you got your big break?
An organisation called NITA paid us Sh300,000 to train three of their staff for three months. After that other organisations joined. So far, we have trained staff from five corporate organisations.
That obviously meant moving to bigger and better premises. I also needed to review the school fees because we were now paying rent. So in 2018, I increased the fees from Sh18,5000 to Sh21,000 per student. We then moved again to bigger premises to meet the rising demand. Now we charge Sh31,000 per student. We are now in Nairobi, Mombasa and Nakuru and plan to expand to Kitui, Machakos, Kericho and Kilifi. All our teaching staff are deaf.
What challenges does the business face?
I am in the business of making communication easy but I still deal with the challenge myself. Most times I will be in the office alone and when the phone rings, I won’t hear. And even if I picked, we will not communicate without an interpreter. Such a person might never contact us again. I could choose to video call after sending a text but then I realise that they will still not understand sign language.
How has the pandemic affected business?
Right now, we have suspended classes because of the directive given by the President. We are trying online classes but that is difficult because many can’t afford the internet costs.
As a hearing person new in your class, how do you teach me ye I can’t understand gestures?
This is how we do it. I write on the whiteboard and then sign whatever it is I have written. For instance, if you want to sign letters S, you simply fold your fist. That’s it!
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