During the opening of the 9th National Dialogue, a youthful participant alerted the chair, President Paul Kagame, that a section of Rwandans, the deaf, were not following proceedings because there was no interpreter for sign language.
On the second day of the event at Amahoro Stadium, a sign language interpreter appeared on the giant screen and the estimated 50,000 Rwandans with impaired hearing were able to follow what was being deliberated on by their leaders on television.
It has since emerged that while that number of Rwandans may have missed out on such important deliberations in the past, plans are underway to get the deaf more involved in national matters.
It is understood that quite a lot is happening in the National Council of People with Disabilities (NCPD) to streamline teaching and use of sign language.
Emmanuel Ndayisaba, the NCPD Executive Secretary, said they are first of all addressing the disharmony in sign language in the country.
“We have been facing the issue of harmony in the teaching of sign language. When Italians come here, they teach Italian sign language, an American will teach American sign language …. As a result, it is confusing communication,” said Ndayisaba.
“We are planning to have interpreters of sign language trained to harmonize the language to be in line with the Rwandan culture,” he said, adding that preliminary consultations were going on to develop a sign language dictionary.
Ndayisaba added that they would start a plan to train experts to serve a large number of people, “because the deaf are sometimes neglected in certain service because service providers cannot communicate with them”.
The NCPD has set a 2016 deadline to have this dictionary in place. A team of sign language teachers recently returned from a study tour in Uganda, where sign language teaching is relatively developed.
According to Oswald Tuyizere, NPDC Director of socio-economic development, so far the country has got nine local translators who double as teachers recognized by the Rwanda National Union of the Deaf (RNUD).
This is a small number for the estimated 50,000 deaf people across the country.
Tuyizere said they are advocating for scholarships for more interpreters to go for training in Uganda. After a two year training, he said, they would come back with capability to make a curriculum of sign language for formal education.
Louise Karamaga, in charge of scholarship department in Rwanda Education Board, said such a request is welcome because every year they award ten scholarships to people with disabilities.
So far, there is no school teaching sign language in the country.
Beneficiaries of these courses would include the police, the medical practitioners, and teachers among others.
Officials in NCPD hope that only then will deaf people enjoy all services in their country.
In the next few years, all disabled people who had a chance to go to school will have reason to smile, if all goes according to plan.
As of now, their institutions decry stigma, where they sit the same exam with other people, and pass, but the employers cannot employ them: “because they doubt their capabilities as if disability is inability.”
NCPD say that they are in negotiations with the Ministry of Labour to introduce quota system when filling jobs in public institutions. “We are working on a draft proposal. The law would oblige institutions to have a certain percentage of disabled people on their staff,” said Ndayisaba.
Figures show that of 28 visually impaired people with university degrees, only six of them are employed.
According to Ndayisaba, it has been proven that, outside the legal mechanism, society would barely avoid discrimination against people with physical disabilities.
Besides the government, the NCPD has three close partners in the civil society: Voluntary Services Oversees (VSO), Handicap International and the Rwanda National Union of the Deaf (RNUD).
Apart from the challenges mentioned above, NCPD decries a shortage of services like medical checkup for deaf people, which is only available in referral hospitals.