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Side-By-Side Peace Corps Service Supports Kenya’s Deaf Education

A dozen Deaf students in Kenya gather to sign to a computer

Classes may have ended for the day, but instead of starting their daily chores, Deaf primary school students throughout Kenya race to their afterschool literacy club. With technical assistance from on-the-ground Peace Corps Volunteers, the Deaf students gather to watch as Leonard and Brenda Aron are electronically transported from the couple’s current home in Portugal to the literacy clubs in Kenya.

Today’s literacy lesson is a picture sequencing activity in which three images are presented on the screen. Using context clues and critical thinking skills, the students agree on the proper order before creatively expanding on the story using Kenyan Sign Language (KSL).

A man swipes his thumb across his chin from left to right
Len shares his sign name, which is traditionally given to a person by a Deaf individual.

Much to the children’s surprise, Leonard and Brenda occasionally need one of the Volunteers or host country teachers to translate American Sign Language (ASL) to KSL or vice versa. These moments only seem to demonstrate to the students that it’s okay to not always know the correct answer. Residential school compounds often isolate the Deaf children living there from the outside world, resulting in little to no opportunities to interact with other Deaf children. It’s no surprise that the young learners greatly look forward to the weekly online sessions, which enable them to meet and sign with other Deaf children.

Peace Corps Kenya started its Deaf education project in 2002, eight years before KSL became recognized as the country’s third official language. Since then, Peace Corps Kenya has hosted over 20 Deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) in-person Volunteers and over 100 hearing Volunteers who have supported Kenyan schools for the Deaf.

Brenda and Leonard, who previously served as in-person Peace Corps Response Volunteers in Guatemala (2016-2017), applied to serve as DHH Volunteers in Kenya themselves. After much consideration though, the two withdrew their applications as they didn’t want their age or health to interrupt the service in any way.

“When the opportunity to serve through Peace Corps’ Virtual Service Pilot came up, it seemed perfect for us. The fact that we are serving five schools rather than just one feels like a win-win,” Brenda explained.

As Virtual Service Pilot Participants (VSPPs), Brenda and Leonard started by co-facilitating two, 45-minute online literacy sessions each week. They started out meeting every Tuesday with three of the participating schools and met the two additional schools on Thursday. However, they quickly realized that this format did not provide enough space for each student to participate. They’ve since modified the format to 30-minute sessions with each school twice a week.

A woman crosses her arms across her chest
Brenda shows the KSL sign for 'friend'
A woman interlocks her two index fingers
Brenda shows the ASL sign for 'friend'

“I voice the lessons as Brenda signs, so the Volunteers and local teachers who have different levels of sign language proficiency can follow along,” revealed Leonard.

After being married for an impressive 43 years, Brenda and Leonard know how to play to each other’s strengths. Leonard applies his experience as a school administrator to offer classroom management and logistical solutions, which is key for accommodating the various schools. Brenda, on the other hand, draws from her vast experience teaching Deaf learners of all ages to develop thoughtful and engaging lessons alongside the local teachers. The learning materials developed are then uploaded to a cloud-based, file-sharing platform that all the teachers and Volunteers can access at any time. All in all, the couple donates 5 to 8 hours each week.

The teachers involved are building upon the literacy lessons in their own classrooms and gaining experience in using virtual resources to promote learning among young Deaf children. Vincent, who teaches various subjects for grades 3 and 8 at one of the participating schools, says “As a Deaf teacher, I have learned a new way of teaching children with special needs. Despite network and connectivity challenges in my village, my students have enjoyed the virtual classes and we have made many friends in [neighboring] schools for the Deaf. Thank you for this!”

An older white couple appears on a projector screen
Brenda and Leonard appear via a projector in one classroom.

The additional online support has been helpful to the Volunteers, too. Marissa, who is in her fourth month of service, says “My students seem to enjoy the sessions with Brenda and Len. They are eager to answer questions and look forward to the classes. I work closely with my counterpart in bridging the communication gap between my learners who are KSL users and the two VSPPs who are ASL users. The PowerPoint and visuals shared by Brenda and Len are helpful to reinforce what was taught in class and promote retention.”

Virtual engagement provided an opportunity for the couple to learn something new. In addition to being tutored in KSL, the couple grew their technology skillset: “It was a huge learning curve technology-wise, like how to incorporate a presentation into the instruction while still being able to see the students signing. We learned how to manipulate the screen so the “speaker” at that school [was] visible.”

An older couple stand in front of a beach
When they aren't facilitating online literacy clubs, Brenda and Len enjoy exploring new places.

Brenda and Leonard shared that despite occasional connection issues, their virtual service experience has been a positive one. In fact, they’ve signed on to continue the literacy club for another six weeks. “We can see from the faces of the students they are excited each time we present a lesson. Students are engaged and quick to respond. As a Deaf and highly educated person, Brenda is an excellent role model for the students and staff. For us as a couple, students and staff can see that Deaf and Hearing people can work and live together,” said Leonard.

The in-country Peace Corps staff are excited by the Virtual Service Pilot’s potential in supporting the Ministry of Education to make education more accessible to DHH students.

“DHH children in Kenya face many obstacles, such as inaccessible teaching and learning materials, inadequate numbers of well-trained teachers, and communication barriers. Due to these challenges, DHH children have low progression rates to institutes of higher learning,” Peace Corps Kenya’s Education program manager, Renalda Mwanyuma, explained regarding Post’s impact on Kenya’s DHH community. “The need for teacher support in schools for the Deaf is huge. Deaf schools are short staffed, and teachers are unmotivated due to lack of teaching resources and strategies adapted for Deaf children. With [lower than expected numbers of] Education for the Deaf (E4D) Volunteers, Virtual Service is an opportunity to deliver ideas, skills, and resources. We are considering more engagements with Deaf schools that do not receive Volunteers to expand our outreach. “

If you would like to collaborate with Peace Corps partners in person or online, consider applying to serve as a two-year Peace Corps Volunteer, short-term Response Volunteer, or Virtual Service Pilot Participant like Brenda and Leonard.