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OISE grad student went to extraordinary lengths to carry out research

Research shows United Nations-sponsored instruction for deaf children in Kenya provides essential skills, new hope for the future

Megan Youngs' Research Presentation - Video

March 7, 2011

by: John Schofield

She was born deaf. But Megan Youngs’ groundbreaking research speaks volumes about the plight of deaf children living in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. For more than a month last year, the OISE graduate student lived in Kenya’s overcrowded Dadaab refugee camp to conduct interviews and gather information for her recently completed master’s thesis. Originally built to accommodate 90,000 people, Dadaab today is home to about 300,000 refugees in three camps, most of them fleeing civil war in neighbouring Somalia. In the chaos of their homeland, deaf children receive no schooling and are often the target of hostility from hearing children and adults who fear they may “catch” deafness.

Youngs’ unique research shows how United Nations-sponsored instruction provided to deaf children at Dadaab not only provides essential skills, but new hope for the future.

“Before they went to school, parents said, it was like their child was walking in darkness,” says the 28-year-old native of Milton, ON. “School was seen as a light. There was a sense that, finally, their child could belong somewhere.”

Youngs, who now works as a regional trainer in Africa for the Helsinki-based World Federation of the Deaf, went to extraordinary lengths to carry out her research. The geographical and bureaucratic barriers were daunting enough. Once in Dadaab, she evaluated the effectiveness of deaf education by conducting 65 interviews with deaf students, their parents, teachers, administrators, and other officials. The conversations involved an astounding seven languages – American Sign Language, Kenyan Sign Language, Somali Sign Language, an improvised system used by untrained deaf people known as Home Sign, as well as Somali, Kiswahili, and English. Each discussion was videotaped, with interpreters and translators helping Youngs to communicate and later transcribe the information.

The complexity of simply conversing was made all the more challenging by cultural differences and Youngs’ commitment to following traditional research protocols to the letter. “Her methodology was remarkable,” says Vandra Lea Masemann, an adjunct associate professor with OISE’s Comparitive, International and Development Education Centre, who co-supervised Youngs’ research with Stephen Anderson, an associate professor in OISE’s Department of Theory & Policy Studies. “She met the challenges with courage and imagination.”

While deaf education in Dadaab offers enormous benefits, Youngs discovered that the program also faces enormous challenges. Teachers and students struggle with a chronic lack of funding and equipment. The turnover among teachers is high, and the teaching of sign language skills needs improvement. Like schooling for hearing students at Dadaab, the deaf program’s reach is limited. About 70 per cent of the 300,000 refugees at the camps are children, and half of them are not in school. In a refugee facility where about 6,500 new asylum-seekers arrive daily, deaf education is simply another need on a long list of priorities. Even so, says Youngs, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) seems committed to providing as much deaf education as possible.

The newly minted OISE graduate says that the title of her master’s thesis helps explain her motivation for tackling such a rigorous research project: Real People, Real Needs: Deaf Education in Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. In a campus presentation of her research, she told her audience that one UNHCR official asked her during her visit to Dadaab why she bothered. “There were many times during this process when I doubted I would be able to pull it off,” she confided. “But there are individual services provided to individual demographics throughout the camps. What about deaf people? These are real people with real needs. That is what touched me, and that is why I bothered.”

As part of the fourth generation of her family to be born deaf, Youngs has never let her lack of hearing lessen her appetite for challenges. After graduating from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world’s only dedicated university for the deaf and hard of hearing, she volunteered for the U.S. Peace Corps, working as a teacher of deaf children in a remote rural community in Kenya. “That was how I was first struck by the importance of providing accessible services for the deaf,” she says, “and how hard that is in rural communities.”

Youngs traces her interest in international issues to her elementary school years, when a deaf exchange student from Argentina stayed with her family for four months. Later, in high school, she became an exchange student herself, living in New Zealand for a year through a Rotary International exchange program. “When that student from Argentina lived with us,” she recalls, “it occurred to me that there are deaf people in every country, and suddenly the world opened up for me.”

Now, deaf children living in some of the world’s most difficult conditions could benefit from Youngs sense of compassion and exceptional scholarship. “What she’s done for master’s level research is far in excess of what one would expect,” says Anderson. “She’s a tremendous advocate for her community.” Masemann calls her a pioneer in comparative and international education of the deaf – but one who remains modest about her accomplishments. “She is a remarkable person and student.” 

Megan Youngs' Research Presentation - Video