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UK scheme helps to smash disability stigmas in Africa


Raabia Hussain, who is deaf, travelled to Kenya to work alongside VSO’s deaf  volunteers to change perceptions and drive change in the local community (Photo credit: Paul Wambugu)
Raabia Hussain, who is deaf, travelled to Kenya to work alongside VSO’s deaf volunteers to change perceptions and drive change in the local community (Photo credit: Paul Wambugu)

by LAUREN CODLING

THE “incorrect” perception of disabilities such as blindness and deafness can have a significantly negative impact on the lives of people affected by it, two British Asian campaigners have said.

Raabia Hussain, 26, and Mahomed Khatri, 29, are deaf and blind, respectively. Both admit they have faced challenges due to their disabilities – some of which were caused by other people’s reactions and their lack of understanding.

Khatri and Hussain have both taken part in the International Citizen Service (ICS) scheme in Africa to help smash stigmas of disabilities abroad. Organised by the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and funded by government, the project placed the pair in some of the continent’s poorest communities.

Besides the physical difficulties of vision loss, Khatri admitted it was hard for people to understand the hurdles he faces in everyday life. Knowing that people were judging him because of his disability instead of his other qualities was “extremely challenging”, he said.

Mahomed (right) during his placement in Zambia 

“People with disabilities always get judged, and are perceived to be less able,” Khatri told Eastern Eye. “It’s untrue. Anyone who is fully able today can become disabled tomorrow. You would assume they are treated the same, but sadly you get defined by your disability. Your whole life is negatively impacted due to the incorrect perceptions of others.”

Hussain has faced similar problems due to her disability. Born deaf, she was initially told to speak instead of using sign language. However, this caused problems for her as she grew up.

“They thought it would be better for me to learn to speak rather than signing,” she told Eastern Eye. “They were wrong because I struggled a lot and it made me confused with who I really was – if I was a deaf or a hearing person.”

As she got older, she discovered the deaf community and realised how much she had missed out on deaf culture. British Sign Language (BSL) is now her first language. “I rediscovered my deaf identity and now I fully embrace it,” Hussain, from Manchester, said.

However, she admitted that she has experienced isolation due to the lack of deaf awareness within society. Some people tended to panic if they did not understand how to communicate with her, Hussain explained, which often left her feeling alone and unable to convey her thoughts. She also found it difficult to understand people if they did not take her disability into account. Even if they knew she was hard of hearing, Hussain claimed it usually did not make a difference to them.

Volunteers Esther Wanjiru and Raabia Hussain (right) teach students sign language at a school in Nandi, Kenya

“(People) do not adjust their communication to match my needs,” she admitted. “For example, (they do not use a) clear voice, gestures and be more visual. Not many people in society are deaf aware.”

Hussain, who spent time in Kenya last summer, described the trip as “one of the best experiences of her life”. She was encouraged by the experience and the people she met along the way. “I learned so much from the community about disabilities and I was inspired by the hundreds of hardworking people who do not give up,” said Hussain, who works as an independent filmmaker.

However, she discovered while there that some people viewed disabilities, such as a loss of
hearing, as a curse. Many deaf people were unemployed or treated differently due to the stigma in society.

Khatri, from Leicester, completed the ICS scheme in 2015 in Zambia. Although he has not gone overseas since then, he said he has realised his loss of sight does not restrict him from travelling or working abroad in the future. “I would love to be working on positive social change, have an impact on the world in the way I want to, and to help people who are most in need,” Khatri said. “(I would say to anyone considering ICS) to just do it. It’s a once-in-
a-lifetime opportunity and you’ll have the most amazing experience.”

Visit www.volunteerics.org for more information about ICS or to apply to join the scheme.