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Talking with Texts: How Cellphones Empower Deaf Children in Uganda

Kids text all the time – at school, on the bus, even when you’re trying to talk to them. It can be annoying. But imagine if a child couldn’t communicate at all – that’s when a mobile can become a lifeline. In some developing countries, children who are deaf don’t have access to special education,...

Kids text all the time – at school, on the bus, even when you’re trying to talk to them. It can be annoying. But imagine if a child couldn’t communicate at all – that’s when a mobile can become a lifeline. In some developing countries, children who are deaf don’t have access to special education, technology or even sign language teaching.

In this edition of Digital Diversity, Cambridge to Africa’s Sacha DeVelle, explains how her organisation has been using mobile phones in specially designed education programmes to help deaf children in Uganda communicate. By getting everyone in their schools to help out, the projects also happen to be making them the coolest kids in school.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.

By Sacha DeVelle

Kato and Kakuru are deaf twins. They have just arrived at the Child Africa International School in Kabale, Uganda. I am running a teacher training course at the school, and spend my lunch hours in the playground with all the children. But I am perplexed by the twins. They have fallen asleep in a far corner of the grounds, lying uncomfortably on some old wheat pallets, joined at the hip but completely isolated from the other children. This is a self-imposed exile, one they have lived in for years. For a week I watch them. They do not move from the pallets. Their clothes are dirty and ripped. They have no shoes and have not washed for a long time. Kakuru cries a lot, however the look on her face says she’s not someone who cries for attention, but out of frustration.

The girls are very different heights. It’s hard to believe they are twins. I ask the other teachers why they are so difficult to reach psychologically, why they are crying. “They have lice, they can’t sign, have no language skills, they have come down from the mountains and don’t understand this environment. They only have each other” explains one teacher.


Kato and Kakuru (Photo: Cambridge to Africa)


There are nine other deaf children at the school, although they have had time to adapt and integrate. Dodi is a real character – he has a mother, loves to dance and has some sign language skills. The one deaf teacher working at the school provides a lifeline to these children. By the time I leave, the twins have joined the class, they are starry eyed and excited about their new uniforms.


Deaf teacher Flavia, and friend, taking a class for the children (Photo: Cambridge to Africa)


Back in the UK I think a lot about Kato and Kakuru. What it’s like to be deaf in East Africa.

Without a voice deaf females face a triple stigma: gender, poverty and disability. Many girls are violated because they cannot speak out. They may learn to use a pidgin signing system from the village, but are not fluent in any language (tribal, signed or English). Deaf girls are often abandoned. Their disability is seen as a curse on the family. Others are locked up in back rooms to hide the family shame. Those that make it to a school setting are the lucky ones.

One of our trustees tells me about a presentation she has just seen, using FrontlineSMS in developing contexts. It was this conversation that gave me the idea to run a mobile phone social inclusion project in Kabale: integrating deaf children into the mainstream environment.

We launched our pilot study in 2010. The wider challenges of carrying out such a scheme are complex. The management of existing prejudice and communication barriers must be factored into the design.

We have a methodology. Six deaf children have a hearing buddy, with a total of 12 students contributing to the study. We provide separate training to both groups for three days. Then they are brought together, with the hearing children playing a buddy role. We learn that the hearing children’s sign language skills and patience are far superior than we realised. We also learn that deaf children do not have much patience with their deaf counterparts! Our six pairs are given written instructions on scraps of paper. They must text messages to another pair somewhere in the playground, and wait for a response. They love this game. The deaf children are very vocal, a lot of frantic signing and suggestions for written responses.

Kakuru is one of the deaf participants. She is in awe of her new mobile phone, how messages fly in from nowhere. She likes to receive them, but is not too keen on writing – it’s hard for her. We learn that their written skills are very low – they are used to rote learning, straight from the blackboard. Now they must produce authentic, instantaneous text on a range of different topics.


Kakuru and ‘hearing buddy’ train together (Photo: Cambridge to Africa)


Our preliminary findings are very exciting. The SMS social inclusion project has united the school, developed the children’s confidence, and highlighted the need for more communicative literacy skills in the classroom. Most importantly, it has raised the status of the deaf children as Caroline explains:

I can now visualise a bright future because I am far better than what I was when I was still shabby in the village four years ago. Those who used to laugh at me in the village now see me as a star because most of the rural community members do not know how to use sign language or mobile phone SMS facility

Phase 3 of our SMS social inclusion project will be launched in 2012. We will work with new schools in Kampala that integrate deaf children into the Ugandan primary school curriculum. Self empowerment, social cohesion and improved literacy skills were all key outcomes from our previous phases. However, there is still much work to be done to further integrate deaf girls into the community. As Docus clearly states: “All my village mates used to laugh at me because I could not hear what they could say and also I did not have any way to speak to them. Can you imagine an orphan like me using a mobile phone SMS facility at the age of ten to communicate to educated people like you? God is great”.

Sacha DeVelle is the founder and managing director of Cambridge to Africa, a UK registered charity that provides funding and educational expertise for projects in East Africa. Sacha has a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Queensland, Australia and currently lives in London where she works as an international education consultant.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Ken Banks
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.