Dr Lutalo to improve education opportunities for deaf Ugandans

Monday, 26 October 2015 14:57 Written by  Yudaya Nangonzi

His area of expertise is Ugandan sign language, where he trains sign language interpreters at diploma level and teachers in Special Needs Education (SNE). He told his life story to Yudaya Nangonzi through Nancy M Katumba and John Buyinza, both sign language interpreters trained by Lutalo, at his office in Kyambogo.

How he became deaf

I cannot really tell when I became deaf. But I was told that I was born a premature from Mulago hospital at seven months and I lacked oxygen. My uncle, who is a doctor, thought the deafness resulted from a premature birth.

In my family, I am the only deaf person. I have three hearing brothers and five sisters. It is sad that my parents who raised me are all deceased. My mother died in 2010 and father this year.

Point at which he realised that he was deaf

I appreciate my family because they were always there for me. At around age five or six, I was taken to Mumias primary school in Kenya from kindergarten to standard eight.

That is when I first realised that my communication was different. At home, they were using local gestures to communicate to me. In school, I was seeing deaf children signing; [I would also see] hearing teachers speaking [and they] wanted me to lip-read. So, I wondered: who am I?

I learned Kenyan sign language from my deaf classmates. There were schools in Uganda but my parents thought Kenyans had better standards then for the deaf.

When I finished, Africa then had no deaf education in secondary schools. So, I joined St Joseph’s Nyangoma technical institute in Nyanza province where I got a certificate in electrical installation after four years.

Did he stop at this level?

After that, I came back to Uganda and my mother told me to start working. I tried to look for work at Lugogo Vocational Training Institute (LVTI)  but they said I had stopped at a lesser level. I was instead told to join the institute to add on my levels.

In 2004, I got a grade two level and later grade three in 2006. These were equivalent to O and A-levels respectively. With those certificates, I felt that my area of interest is sign language.

Why he got interested in sign language yet he was now qualified in electrical installation?

To take you back a little, I had been working with the Uganda National Association of the Deaf (Unad) from 1994 to 2002, and Kyambogo University from 2002 until 2006.

While at Unad, we travelled to Denmark at a centre for sign language and sign-supported communication where I got a certificate and diploma in sign language. In UNAD, I was now training Ugandan sign language and at the same time carrying out research.

I was working as part time staff at UNAD, training sign language interpreters at Kyambogo while practicing electrical installation on an individual basis. I had already been fascinated by sign language since I was a child.

What have been some of his contributions to the deaf community?

I have participated in quite several things that are helping the deaf today. In 2006, I was one of the four authors of the Ugandan sign language dictionary; the first of its kind in Uganda, published by Kyambogo University.

For now, I have so far trained more than 450 sign language interpreters since 2002. These include students, professionals and interested groups. I have also trained people in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia.

I have done various research on the deaf community with the latest being one with another deaf colleague Dr Goedele De Clerck from Ghent University in Belgium and the university of Manchester in the UK. We presented the findings last month and now compiling a book and video story of how the deaf community has come of age.

We hope that by November this year, the book will be ready for publication. I am also a deaf native user of the Ugandan and Kenyan sign languages, and fluent in Tanzanian, Zambian, Rwandan, extreme North Cameroon, Danish, British and American sign languages.

And all my education has been centered on the deaf. On July 18, 2014, I graduated with a PhD in deaf studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in UK. My thesis topic was: A descriptive grammar of morphosyntactic constructions in Ugandan Sign Language (UgSL). At the age of 42, I am the first deaf person to have a doctorate in linguistics in Africa.

His most challenging moments while growing up

The challenges are many but the most challenging is communication. If there were interpreters, communication would be easy. For instance, whenever we had a family meeting, I would get an interpreter who would look like an intruder in family issues.

While a student at LVTI, it was the first time the principal met a deaf student. He told me to sit in a special room where I would pay Shs 50,000 for two hours every evening.

This was a lot of money then. A term comprised of three months and I had to also pay Shs 120,000 as tuition like other students. It was very disappointing. But later, one lecturer helped me fight for my rights and I had to study with other students. Surprisingly, when exams were due, we were about 50 students and I passed highly.

Some issues affecting the deaf that he thinks government needs to address

In Africa, Uganda is seen as a role model in addressing issues of the deaf but some challenges remain. There needs to be equitable job opportunities for deaf people while interpreting services are provided.

Education for deaf people has always been vocational yet after completion; they may get a job but receive peanuts. Although government has managed to construct deaf schools, I feel their level is not convincing. Many people feel pity for the deaf and end up getting less content. Teachers don’t know sign language in inclusive schools; so, the knowledge imparted might not be the same.

Even at Kyamabogo University, teachers who come for SNE, the curriculum has little information on deaf education. The books are very good but how to impart the knowledge remains a challenge. Sometimes, they pick the easy things; write on the blackboard and deaf children copy that.

When it comes to science subjects, the knowledge imparted is totally different. We want the National Curriculum Development Centre and ministry of education to develop a bi-lingual curriculum where we can improve Ugandan sign language and English as well as improve reading and writing skills for the deaf. 

How is he planning to academically improve the deaf people?

I am working on a project on reading and writing skills for deaf children with an organization in Netherlands. Many deaf children in UPE schools have failed not because they don’t understand but because the way literacy skills are imparted is still very low.

With Kyambogo, I plan to work on the curricular and teaching materials in Ugandan sign language. As we publish our book, we aim at providing evidence-based services in support of equal opportunities for deaf people in Uganda.

His private life

I am a married man and met my wife Milly Nambolanyi Lutalo in 2005. We officially got married last year. She is a hearing woman and a professional sign language interpreter. When we met, communication was very easy for us because she has a positive attitude towards deaf people.

We have three young hearing children. If I want to talk to them, I sign and their mother speaks. But if she is away, we use sign language, although they are not fluent. 

Whether he regrets being deaf

Not at all. The most important thing is having a way of communicating with other people. These ears are just like flowers.

Information Source

The Observer