Rebecca Olatunji is a well-known advocate on sign language. She is the convener of “I can sign” program, a respected advocate for deaf inclusion in Nigeria. She is also the Executive Director of Collaborating Hands, CODAH, a program birthed out of her will to promote the linguistic and cultural identity of the Deaf community and to ensure their inclusion in society. In this interview with Inclusive News Network, she gave insights into the reasons and motives behind establishing “I can Sign” program. Excerpts.
What is the “I Can Sign” program all about?
The “I Can Sign” program is a pet project of CODAH that started in 2019. It was inspired by my background as the child of deaf adults, usually referred to as CODAs.
Growing up, my parents and only sister, who is also deaf, had to either rely on me or my brothers to communicate with the hearing world. If neither of us were available, communication would be interrupted or might never take place. I also struggled with people’s perceptions of my background, which was mostly due to the communication barriers that exist between the two worlds. Research has found that there is a stigma associated with hearing loss in developing countries and a high level of unconscious stigmatization of deaf people, which is caused by their inability to exchange information with hearing people except with a few trained individuals.
The “I Can Sign” (ICS) program is not just a project; it is my passion to create a world where barriers no longer exist between the deaf and hearing worlds. It seeks to bridge the communication gap while educating the general public on the conscious and unconscious biases that have contributed to the stigmatization of people who are deaf. This is so that the misconceptions, myths, and marginalization that exist in society against the deaf will be curbed or closed entirely.
By teaching sign languages and using the “I Can Sign” program to cater to different age groups as well as communities, CODAH has reached over 5,000 people. In 2020, we won our first global award, ‘The Opportunity Desk Impact Award, which allowed us to expand the “I Can Sign” program to not just train individuals and children but also train parents and families of deaf children.
Now, thanks to ‘The Pollination Grant Awards, we have been able to expand into more communities, training over 50 families in the Surulere local government of Lagos State, Nigeria.
How does it benefit people who want to be part of the program?
The “I Can Sign” program does not only seek to teach sign languages. It also builds the capacity of individuals to become advocates for the deaf or sign language trainers themselves.
The program is divided into three sub-projects, which are the I Can Sign Fellows, I Can Sign School, and I Can Sign Family projects. It caters to hearing students, parents of deaf children, caregivers, and individuals from different walks of life. This means that as a participant, you will fit into any of these categories, which offer tailored courses and training relevant to each target group.
Using this approach has been effective in helping us create a vibrant and sustainable model for promoting a deaf-inclusive society at the local level. We call it the bottom-up approach, which is helping us create a movement where voices are heard and ideas are exchanged.
What other things do you offer?
We offer other varied programs and services, such as:
• Business development training for deaf women to support their already-established businesses
• Early intervention programs for children who are deaf, hard of hearing, or experiencing speech delay between ages 0 and 6 years
• Specialized sign language programs for both primary and secondary students
• Home tutoring services for children who are deaf and hard of hearing to aid their academic progress and development
• Lastly, we offer sign language interpretation services for your training, events, or personal needs.
You can reach us today and be sure to have a good experience and get quality service.
With sign language gaining momentum with each activity being carried out by the deaf/sign language interpreters community in creating awareness on sign language, especially in Nigeria, what is your advice to newbies who may be interested in learning the language?
Learning sign language has a lot of benefits, and you can become as fluent as a native, but first get the idea that ‘Sign language learning is hard’ out of your mind.
•Like learning other languages, it requires time, but not as much time if you are committed to learning and, at the same time, consistent with practicing.
•Three months is too short to attain fluency; it can take up to three years, but your progress is very much dependent on how frequently you use this language.
•This will bring me to my 4th point: the best way to learn a language is by using it, so if you don’t have native signers around you, find a community of deaf people or an organization that works with them to volunteer with.
•Invest in learning; don’t just stop at learning from online platforms, books, or apps. Get a tutor or join a community of signers. Sign language isn’t an inferior language that you can only learn for free; invest in getting quality training and, most especially, network with other signers.
•Lastly, don’t just learn from everyone you see, especially online. Be sure of the kind of sign language you want to learn because there are more than 300 different sign languages in use around the world and different local signs used in Nigeria. Do your fact-findings, and that can guide you on where and who to learn from.
Why is this particular sub-project focused on the parents or families of deaf children?
90 to 95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents who often don’t know sign language. What this means is that most deaf children are deprived of language from birth. Children need language to flourish, and when deprived of it, they will not thrive. Research has shown that deaf babies who learn to sign early do better across a range of measures, including academic achievement, than children who don’t. When children don’t get adequate exposure to language, their brains don’t develop properly. They become socially and emotionally isolated and vulnerable to other kinds of abuse as well.
There have been cases of deaf children being sexually and emotionally abused, but they cannot communicate with or report the perpetrators to their parents or relevant authorities. Most of these parents have to wait until school resumes before they can understand the plights of their deaf kids. They rely heavily on trained teachers who can communicate with their children or interpret for them. This impacts these children negatively, making them unlikely to reach their full potential.
A huge communication gap exists between deaf children, their families, and their environment, which needs to be filled. Parents need to be informed and trained, their communities need to be educated and trained, awareness needs to be raised, and there’s a lot more that needs to be done to bridge these gaps, and that is what we are doing with the I Can Sign Initiative.
International Day of Sign Language and International Week of the Deaf are just around the corner. What’s your advice to the deaf, hard of hearing and sign language interpreter communities?
It is yet another time for us to raise awareness of the significance of sign languages to deaf people as well as other sign language users.
Let us use this week to do something significant, no matter how small. Don’t say, What can I do? You can do a lot. You can plan a mini-awareness project. You can teach basic signs or use your social media platforms to talk about sensitive social issues surrounding deaf people. You can do a street interview using your phone or even as little as make a deaf friend today, and vice versa for deaf people. You can also join or support other organizations to mark this day. All I am saying is: get creative, get involved, and don’t be left out!
The journey towards achieving a deaf-inclusive society isn’t just for some people. It is for everyone, and we need one another to make it a reality.
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