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Achieving Communication Access in Africa on a Shoe String Budget

December 19, 2011

Cliff Missen and sign language interpreter in EthiopiaFour Cities, Three Countries, Two Weeks, and One Communication Challenge

For a deaf person, making arrangements for communication access can be a logistical challenge no matter where you are.  But the challenge increases when you know you will be sweeping through four cities in three countries on the eastern coast of Africa during two weeks of travel. And during that trip, you will be partnering with your colleague to lead technical presentations and training sessions.  You will be meeting with USAID mission offices and leaders of disabled people’s organizations.  That’s a lot of discussions involving rich information and nuanced communication.  How should you even start to accomplish this?

Now for another challenge: the fiscal realities for your small non-profit organization mean you cannot hire an American Sign Language interpreter to travel to Africa with you.  Your employers are unquestionably committed to full inclusion, and that does include allocated funds for disability-related accommodations.  But, even with this support, your project budget will only stretch so far, and there are limits to how much other funding could be used to supplement it.

This was the challenge I confronted when the opportunity emerged for me to travel to Africa this November with Cliff Missen, the co-director of the WiderNet Project at the University of Iowa.  This trip was an opportunity to help new users learn how to navigate the Global Disability Rights Library.  We also wanted to ensure users knew how to create their own digital content so they could share their expertise with other people using the same eGranary Digital Library device.  Furthermore, the trip was an important opportunity to learn more about the needs of the disability communities in the countries we were visiting.  But all this could only happen with my full communication access and participation as a deaf person during the trip.

Could Hiring Local Sign Language Interpreters be the Way to Go?

Might it be feasible for us to hire a local sign language interpreter in each city?  Hiring locally would save us the cost of flying someone to Africa, which would be the most expensive part of bringing an interpreter with us.  A local interpreter would also have the advantage of familiarity with regional accents.  In any case, we knew we already needed to hire a local sign language interpreter to accommodate deaf participants at two of the four training sessions.  Could I simply share this interpreter with the deaf participants at these two training sessions and then hire the same interpreter for other meetings in the same city?

Many African countries have their own local sign language interpreters, but the level of training and professionalism varies widely from country to country and from interpreter to interpreter.  Some signed languages used in African countries are similar to American Sign Language (ASL), which is the language used in the United States and in English-speaking parts of Canada.  But African signed languages also have been influenced by several different European signed languages, all of which are very different from ASL.  And even in countries where the Deaf community has borrowed much of their sign vocabulary from elsewhere, they usually also generate their own unique signs appropriate to their local cultural context.  Even assuming I could find a good quality interpreter locally, would I be able to understand their signs?  Two weeks is not nearly enough time to learn three new signed languages.

Researching Interpreters in Africa

I could only answer my many questions by doing my homework.  I talked with an American interpreter I know who has been involved with promoting the quality of the sign language interpreting profession in Africa.  I reached out to contacts at the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI).  I also talked with some of the organizations that are deploying the GDRL and with the GDRL regional representative in Tanzania, who himself is Deaf and sometimes uses a sign language interpreter.

I learned that in Zambia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia—all three of the countries we were planning to visit—sign language interpreters are available and the Deaf community in all three countries had borrowed many of their signs from ASL.  My traveling companion Cliff Missen even discovered a poster ahead of the trip that depicted Zambian Sign Language.  Although some of the signs on the poster were different from signs used in ASL, many others were similar.  I decided to take a gamble that the signed languages in these three countries were similar enough to ASL that I would be able to get by.

After a flurry of inter-continental emails, I obtained recommendations for an interpreter in each of the four cities.  GDRL Deployment site Zambia Deaf Youth and Women recommended an interpreter in Lusaka, Zambia, and another in their city, Kitwe, Zambia.  Our Tanzanian regional representative recommended that I use his own interpreter while in Dar es Salaam.  A GDRL deployment site in Ethiopia talked with a local deaf organization to recommend someone in Addis Ababa.

We negotiated the relevant fees with each interpreter, which turned out to be about $65 to $80 USD per day, depending on the country—far cheaper than the cost to hire a certified ASL interpreter in the US, but still a good salary by local standards.

Was This the Right Choice?

Overall, using local interpreters worked well, particularly in Zambia and in Ethiopia.  The interpreters I met signed clearly and well even when under the pressure of a fast-paced meeting or training session.  In the little time I had to get to know them, they were as competent and as professional as their counterparts in the United States.  The interpreter I met in Lusaka particularly impressed me with his flexibility and constant efforts to meet my unique communication needs as a foreign visitor.  I credit my success in understanding subsequent African interpreters partly to his help, and to the crash course he gave me in Zambian signs.

I found that Zambian and Ethiopian signs were indeed similar to ASL, with some exceptions.  For example, there are different signs in ASL for ‘Right’ as in ‘correct’ and ‘Right’ as in ‘human rights’.  In Zambian Sign Language they use the same signs, but the meanings are reversed.  Each new sign I learned helped me the next time I saw that sign, and the next.  I was also able to figure out new Zambian signs as our interpreter interpreted my colleague Cliff’s GDRL introduction—a presentation I know by heart.

Tanzania turned out to be more of a challenge.  After I arrived I discovered that, although some Tanzanian signs are indeed borrowed from ASL, many other signs are borrowed from Finnish sign language.  The interpreter we used in Tanzania worked well with our deaf GDRL regional representative, and he understood my speech well—which turned out to be critical in using his support to translate from my spoken English to his spoken Swahili during a media event we held in Tanzania.  But despite some limited similarity between his signs and ASL, and some similarity to signs I learned in Zambia, I had difficulty understanding him.

We did muddle through somewhat.  The interpreter made an attempt to incorporate a few international signs when he could.  He also tried to “lip speak” the English words along with his signs so I could use lip reading to supplement my understanding of his signs and vice versa.  But I felt I missed more of the communication in Tanzania than I did in Zambia and Ethiopia.

At a later meeting in Ethiopia where we could not arrange for an interpreter, I explained my communication needs and asked if someone could assist me by hand writing an on-going summary of the key points.  A woman at the meeting did volunteer to help.  Handwriting, of course, is not nearly as fast as signing, so this was necessarily far less detailed and nuanced than a sign translation.  But because of her assistance, I was able to identify occasions when I could make an intelligent contribution to the discussion.

Would I do This Again?

If I ever go back to Zambia and Ethiopia, I probably would hire the same interpreters again.  In Tanzania, I might consider investigating whether there is another local interpreter who has more familiarity with at least international signs if not ASL.

Or, if this were not possible, I would at least try to build time in the schedule to meet with the interpreter ahead of all other events.  We could then teach each other the Tanzanian and American signs for some of the key words likely to be used.  One lesson I have learned from this trip is that even learning just 20 or 30 of the local signs—as long as you identify the most important signs you are likely to need—can help boost comprehension immensely.

If I have an opportunity to visit other countries on this GDRL project, I will need to ask the same questions: Is the sign language in the target country similar to ASL?  If yes, are there competent, well-trained, qualified sign interpreters there?  Including at least one person with a flexible attitude who is prepared to adapt their signs, and be a sign language teacher, for a foreign deaf visitor?  If not, then I might need to explore other options.

In the United States, specially trained “CART” transcribers use specialized equipment to produce a live transcript of conversation.  CART services and the pertinent equipment do not yet exist in many developing countries.  But one compromise could be to hire someone locally who can type fast and accurately.

If I ever try this or other concepts… you will be able to read about how well it worked (or didn’t) at this blog site.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 22, 2011 6:12 am

    Thanks for bringing the E Granary technology to Africa,I am pretty sure it will go a long way.Thanks Cliff and Andrea for a wonderful work,please keep it up.

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