One day while teaching as usual, I noticed new parents appeared with their Deaf daughter. After my colleagues and I met with the parents, I was shocked to discover that their daughter never had been to school or learned sign language. Instead, she stayed at home and worked on the farm. She was already 18 years old. It was heartbreaking for me.
When I joined the U.S. Peace Corps, I sacrificed my comfortable life in America to move to another side of the world to teach in the Republic of Kenya. However, my sacrifice was soon overshadowed by my determination to teach this student, and all my deaf students in Kenya, as much as I could in the two and half years I served as a Peace Corps Deaf Education volunteer.
When I first arrived in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, I was given an identification card from Kenya’s Ministry of Education. I would not be a regular tourist, but a resident and a volunteer teacher of Deaf children. During the 3-month Peace Corps training, I learned Kenya Sign Language (KSL), Kenyan deaf culture, and the country’s history of Deaf Education.
After the training, I was assigned to the Kichakamkwaju Unit for the Deaf in a tiny village of Shimoni near the Indian Ocean and the Kenya-Tanzania border. The school had few classrooms and a small enrollment of Deaf students.
During the first week of school, I met hearing parents of the Deaf children for first time, and they were surprised to see an American teacher who was Deaf like their children. Some of the hearing parents had a negative attitude toward their Deaf children and wanted to hide them. Yet here I was: a Deaf adult with many skills and a university degree.
In a way, my presence contributed to the changing of some opinions about deafness. Word spread throughout the village that there is a Deaf man from America with a university degree, and I became a role model. Some of the parents of the Deaf children then slowly realized that their child can go to school, learn, and succeed. An interesting trend occurred during my time, the school’s enrollment began to increase.
The 18-year old who arrived late to school without any access to the Deaf community and learning opportunities, gradually improved her language skills and education along with her social skills through Deaf peers at the school.
Deaf Kenyan children and youth always inspire me to teach and share everything I know as we both have the Deaf culture and sign language in common. They were very curious and asked questions about my life in America, and I asked them about their life in Kenya as well. During these meaningful cultural exchanges, I again realized how much joy I gained in teaching and working with Deaf children.
By the time I left Kenya I knew the career path I wanted to pursue. As I returned to my American comforts, I left those Deaf Kenyan children and youth with improved access to education and a determination to become future teachers and role models for other deaf children, youth and their hearing parents.
Why should people with disabilities participate in the Peace Corps?
Gain knowledge of multicultural perspectives.
“If you truly want to understand the world, just leave your country for a while. See the real world to meet different people with many cultures, languages, and customs. It’s better than a textbook.”
Be a role model for others with disabilities.
“Deaf kids looked up to me because they saw it was possible to become a teacher like me.” Erikson also had a significant impact on the hearing parents of his students, many who had negative misconceptions about the abilities of Deaf people.
Share disability-related skills and experiences with others who have disabilities.
“People with disabilities have their own skills and experiences that they can share with others.” Erikson was able to share his knowledge of government, human rights and disability issues with his students in Kenya.
While serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, Erikson Young drew upon his undergraduate degree in political science to teach his Deaf students about their governmental systems. He went on to intern with Mobility International USA, consult for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on disability issues and then to work with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.