Being Deaf in a changing society, a struggle to survive till the end of life.

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Allan Ogwang Nume in (red shirt) tries to understand from his interpreter what a guest is communicating to him.

Understanding the plight of a deaf person is one night mare especially to family members who have to deal with the reality of what communication means in daily life. A “simple” famous “hi” to such a person on a beautiful morning becomes a hurdle unless family members, teachers and friends learn sign language.

In Pece Division, a suburb of Gulu town in Northern Uganda, the deaf have found love, company and oneness in a disability Centre that has existed since President Idi Amin’s era. Their leader is one of the most resilient deaf personality, an icon to others.

35 year old Allan Ogwang Nume unlike many disabled people in Uganda has had the privilege to attend formal education. He has travelled to many countries especially in the United States to meet donors or attend trainings on how to improve his advocacy for the deaf. This is a passion for him as a deaf person who meets so many but can say little to express his feelings unless with the help of his sign language interpreter.

“Being deaf, one needs an interpreter all their lives to access services, interact with people, buy something at the shop or even miss going to church because there are always no sign language interpreters. I also risk being misunderstood when I move alone. I find it so difficult. Besides, it’s inconveniencing.” Narrates Ogwang.

Ogwang was born a healthy boy until the age of Six years when he had a serious malaria attack. His mother took him to the hospital for treatment later but remained partially deaf. Being resilient, he never gave up on school until university.

After finishing his degree in development studies at Gulu University, Ogwang would have admired to work in a classic office with air conditioner and a tea girl to serve him as he enjoys the comfort of a blue collar job, away from the mud and mingle of Gulu town when it rains. But Ogwang’s life has since rotated around disability and fighting for their plight. Today, he works with Gulu Disabled Persons Union as a project officer. He says this has been his home for the last 16 years.

The Centre compound is full of life with people moving in every direction as they enjoy their break time. What is unique to this environment is the sounds of bats seeking better hanging positions on the huge tree branches Known for lining parts of Moroto Road that leads to Lalogi in new Omoro district. The buzzing sounds of cars and boda boda riders negotiating a corner leading to Gulu Centre. The rest are communications in sign language and a few murmurs. That is typical of 11:00am moments at Gulu Disabled Persons Union, GDPU Located in Pece Division, Gulu Municipality.

Everyone is minding their business and on seeing our reporter enter through the main gate, Ogwang approaches with a beaming eye to eye smile alongside his sign language interpreter, Farouq Musema. Farouq is not only a colleague always present but a personal aid to Ogwang especially when visitors are at the centre.

“Welcome to our Centre. This is our home. If you want to talk to any of the girls out there learning to plait hair, you will need help from one of us here to interpret for you. Please feel free to ask,” says Ogwang through his Musema, reinforcing with an assuring wide smile.

Despite having a hearing impairment since childhood Ogwang did not allow his disability to bar him from attaining his dreams as a young boy. He gives credit to his uncles who gave him the greatest gift of education that has shaped his future. He is married with six children who are all healthy though they have had to learn to communicate to their father in sign language from childhood.

To the surprise of many who meet him for the first time, Ogwang speaks excellent English and can read well but can hardly hear when someone talks to him though he has skills in interpreting body language.  

He says he went to numerous schools and was always shifted from one to the other to meet his hearing special need. Ogwang refused to go to disability schools because he saw the lack of attention given to children with disability in class. He wanted to be with able bodied children though he always required special attention to understand well.

Ogwang went to Mbuya Nursery School, Kiswa Primary School, Ntinda Secondary and Lango College for his High School in Central Buganda region before joining Gulu University where he holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Development Studies majoring in Urban Specialization. He is a Mandela Washington fellow, and a tutor for YALI Civic education program for youth on Vocational skills in Partnership with Gulu Comprehensive School formerly Koro Vocational Institute in Omoro district.

While talking to our reporter, Ogwang says after finishing his education, he felt tied to the only place where people knew him, Gulu.

“It is hard to leave here, this is my home. I feel free here because the people I live with understand me. Seeking another job would be just stressing. Few people pay attention to the deaf because they cannot understand them.”

Ogwang wants to advocate for the plight of disabled persons especially the deaf because of the experiences he goes through in his personal life.

“If you are the only deaf person in a home, they always treat you like an outcast. Even at important family meetings that I feel I should contribute, I am always left out and they remember me last. So they get a book and begin to scribble things for me to know what they are talking about. Sometimes I just walk out on them.” Ogwang explains, waving his hand in frustration.

He adds that the life of a deaf person has always been hard because few people are willing to learn sign language thinking it is difficult.

“We are just struggling to survive. People don’t know how to interact with us. Sign language is not hard; you use body language to express your feelings.”

Ogwang worries for the deaf pregnant mothers who go to access maternal services at various health facilities. He says these mothers always come complaining at his office how they are badly treated while giving birth.

He appeals to government of Uganda to listen to the plight of deaf persons who are limited by their low level of education to have a proper representation in all sectors of the country.

“Government should have us at heart. We need a sign language interpreter wherever there is a deaf person working or accessing services and should be paid well.”

In the world of technology, Ogwang says the deaf are left out. They cannot get information of national importance because television stations care less about captionised technology for news and announcements.

“By now our government should be taking interest in disability research on captions on television broadcasts especially news, phones that translate words to text, apps for the disabled, more brailers for the blind and more institutes of learning with good special needs facilities and trained facilitators.”

In the course of his advocacy for the deaf, Ogwang says promoting sign language across the district has been costly due to meager funding for their activities despite the huge demand by families with children who are deaf.

It costs about $22 to facilitate a sign language interpreter per day.

“Disability with poverty is a combination that has locked our people in untold suffering.” Ogwnag laments.

Gulu Disabled Persons Union is the oldest and largest organization working for Persons with Disability (PWDs) in northern Uganda. The Union started in 1979, following the fall of the then dictator, the late President Idi Amin Dada, to make it easier for PWDs to receive food aid. Its mission expanded after the over 2 decades Lord’s Resistance Army Insurgency, which caused widespread death, destruction and disability in the region. In the years since the war, GDPU has sought to integrate disability rights into reconstruction and rehabilitation of Persons with Disability.

 

 

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