Sign Language Interpreter Shares Upbringing Between Deaf Siblings

Sign Language Interpreter, Elizabeth Wambui, in action during the International Sign Language Day celebrations in Nyeri town. Her knowledge of Kenya Sign Language was born out of the need to interact with her three deaf siblings. Photo by Wangari Mwangi.

It is very easy to spot Elizabeth Wambui during major county government functions like the swearing-in ceremony of the governors or even when the Members of the County Assembly are taking an oath of office.

Her hand gestures make her conspicuous. Lately, she has carved a space for herself during public participation sessions organized by either the county government or the national government.

For many of us who are not familiar with sign language, those gestures may not mean much, but to the deaf community, Wambui, and others in her profession, is the link between their silent world and the normal world where in the absence of speech, one on one communication cannot be said to have taken place. 

While many contemporaries take pride in their aptitude in foreign languages like French or Spanish as their second or even third language, for Wambui, Kenya Sign Language(KSL) is her second language.

“I grew up sandwiched between three deaf siblings. Our first and second born are deaf, I am the fifth child and the sixth born is equally deaf,” she says.

“My interest in learning sign language was born out of the realization that my siblings could not learn my language and so I started learning theirs. I would point at objects and my eldest sister would gesture the sign,” she continues.

Although sign language interpretation would have appeared as her natural career path, fate had different plans.

Having come from a very humble background, Wambui says she had to settle for a course in fashion and design, which was a distant third from Teaching and Sign language, which were her first and second preferences respectively.

But along the way she was lucky to undergo a two-year Kenya Sign Language training with the Federation of Deaf Women Empowerment Network.   

More than 10 years down the line and with her proficiency in sign language interpretation, she attests that she is yet to get full-time employment as a Sign Language Interpreter.

Wambui says that despite the existence of the deaf in society and the obvious need for interpreters, many industries have not fully embraced the need to create such positions in their workplaces.

“There is an existing gap in many industries because the deaf, just like the rest of us, walks into institutions like hospitals, banks, and other offices to seek services.

Personally, I get a day or two-day contract as an interpreter. From where I sit, the main reason is that the deaf community is a minority, thus this service is not viewed as a must-have,” says Wambui, whose first major assignment was the interpretation of a church service.

Asked how she prepares for an assignment, Wambui says that just like any other job, sign language interpreters need time beforehand to prepare for the task.

She says that among the many misconceptions that interpreters like her have to deal with, is the perception that they are always ready to take up the task.

Additionally, she notes that just like with any other professional field, there are rules guiding interpreters while undertaking their duties, some of which even dictate the dress code and simple things that may appear less noticeable like a hairstyle.

“What people may not know is that sign language is very expressive, meaning that the deaf person reads a lot from simple things such as the wrong facial expression and should not be distracted by things such as your hairstyle or flashy ornaments. As a rule of thumb, it is advisable to keep it simple,” says the mother of three.

She reckons that there is a lot more that society can do to improve the lives of the deaf community by giving them an opportunity to prove their worth.

“At some point when my children were growing up, I hired a deaf nanny and what I discovered was that they are very thorough and seek perfection in what they do. Their main challenge is that due to the language barrier that exists society is yet to discover this hidden quality that the deaf possess,” she says.

As a way of bridging the gap, Wambui recommends the introduction of basic sign language at the lowest level of education as a way of inculcating the skill at an early age. Surprisingly, she has set the perfect example by ensuring that all her three children are fluent in sign language.

“I start them early by incorporating sign language and speech. This has helped them to acknowledge the existence of the deaf in our community and has also helped them to embrace the deaf,” said Wambui in conclusion.


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