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The deaf volunteer struggling for health equality

VSO/Ben Langdon

Around the world, people with disabilities face additional barriers to getting quality healthcare. Niyonsaba Brown, 31, is a young deaf woman volunteering to change this in her native Rwanda.

A right to healthcare

Health services should be open to all. However, for Rwanda’s half a million people living with disabilities, there’s a gap between the services that they actually need, and what currently exists.

Many people with disabilities have difficulty accessing education and then later in life struggle to find paid employment, all of which makes it more difficult to access healthcare and health services.

To complicate issues, the problem goes beyond a lack of access to information and services: people with disabilities are more vulnerable to risky behaviour and sexual violence. People living with disabilities are more likely to suffer a sexually transmitted infection, and three times as likely to be physically or sexually abused, or raped.

The biggest barrier

Brown Niyonsaba is training healthcare workers and nurses in Rwandan Sign Language VSO

Volunteer Niyonsaba's work also includes training health workers

In a school in Rwanda's Nyagatare district, Niyonsaba Brown, 31, is speaking with deaf students about sexual reproductive health.

In her work as a VSO volunteer, Niyonsaba is breaking down the biggest barrier these students face: communication. A lack of sign language interpreters means that some deaf people might not receive the information they need to protect their health.

Niyonsaba has taught sexual and reproductive health to over 80 students, and is supervising a team of Rwandan Sign Language instructors to train 140 community health workers and nurses at local health centres. The training covers the alphabet, common terms and specialist equipment used in sexual and reproductive health services.

Niyonsaba’s work is vital – sharing knowledge of Rwandan Sign Language is a lifeline for deaf people to understand their health. Without it, young deaf women and men are put at risk and don’t have an equal opportunity to succeed.

An equal chance

Brown Niyonsaba trained as a sign language instructor before volunteering at Umutara Deaf School. VSO

Niyonsaba was originally trained as a sign language instructor by VSO

Niyonsaba has experienced first-hand how support for disabilities is often neglected.

While Niyonsaba grew up among relatives and family friends who were very supportive for her education in a mainstream school, this learning environment didn’t always support her needs.

“At my school, teachers didn’t know sign language. I would try to read the teachers’ simple gestures and read what was written on the chalkboard. Whenever I needed some explanation, I would write to them and wait for their answer.”

Niyonsaba went on to study at university and achieved a degree in IT, before training as a sign language instructor. Niyonsaba is motivated to use her experiences to help deaf people reach their full potential.

Her dream is to empower all deaf people like her to have an equal chance of expressing their ideas, growing as individuals and contributing to Rwanda’s development.

Empowering others to become self-reliant

Niyonsaba’s decision to volunteer was inspired by her mother, who always encouraged her to give back:

“My mother used to remind us of the family and friends who were offering us support, encouraging us to go to school and to become self-reliant, and that we should support others just as we are helped.

“I only believed my mother knew the right thing. I grew up an ambitious person, knowing that everything is possible as long as you work toward a vision,” Niyonsaba said.

I want to continue to be an example for others as I share my knowledge with them.

Niyonsaba Brown

Beyond healthcare, VSO is working to equip deaf people with the skills they need to become self-reliant, by running training sessions on hairdressing, tailoring and craft skills.

For the project, it’s onwards and upwards. After just six months, there is a high demand for this project to be rolled out across the entire Nyagatare district, and so VSO is looking to scale up this project and reach more deaf youth in Rwanda.

Niyonsaba’s work is helping deaf people access the information on sexual and reproductive health they deserve. Meanwhile, for Niyonsaba, volunteering with VSO is a golden opportunity to fulfil her dream to empower all people with hearing difficulties to live a full life.