Grace is deaf and can’t speak, but she’s eager to communicate even with people who can’t understand sign language, enthusiastically using a combination of gestures and writing to get her point across.
Grace has known a lot of unhappiness in her life. Like so many people with disabilities in Uganda, she has experienced discrimination, and been held back and mistreated. But she’s hoping that her prospects will soon change.
She’s about to embark on an economic empowerment programme funded by Sightsavers and the European Commission, called Connecting the Dots. It will give her training and an apprenticeship so she can begin to support herself and her family financially.
Grace lost her hearing after contracting meningitis when she was about four years old. Although there was a school nearby that catered for children who were deaf, it was an expensive boarding school and the family couldn’t afford it – they were struggling financially as Grace’s father had recently passed away.
Grace attended a local school for a few years but wasn’t able to learn much; the teachers didn’t use sign language and weren’t equipped to teach her. Her brother managed to get some money together to send her to the boarding school for a while, where Grace was taught to sign and to read and write, which opened up the world to her. She also gained some sewing skills in a vocational class – but after a while the money ran out, and she left in 2005.
Grace says she’s sometimes overlooked for work because of discrimination and stigma around disability. “They just ignore me,” she says. “They give jobs to other people who are able bodied. I tried to go to someone to do tailoring but they paid me less than other people – 500 shilling (12p) when others were getting 1000 (25p). I just gave up and came back home.”
People have stolen food from the family’s garden and Grace has been physically assaulted by people trying to steal the land where she lives with her mother and sister. “It is because of my deafness. Maybe they thought since I am deaf they can beat me up and I cannot even talk if we are taken to court,” she says. “People were very happy when they saw [that I was beaten], because I have already the deafness and at the same time they wanted me to be physically disabled. People think maybe they need me to die.”
And it’s not only strangers who have treated Grace badly – her former husband’s family were also prejudiced against her. “I was married, but the problem was the parents of Jude’s father, they sent me away because I’m deaf. They told me: ‘Go go go, we don’t want you’. My husband was also deaf, I could sign with him very well, but the parents sent me away. At that time I was four months pregnant. I gave birth when I was at home here, but they have never even tried to visit us. They ignore us.”
With Jude – and her other family members – to support, Grace badly needs the money that learning a skill could bring. She has almost no income at the moment. “We sell some of the food we grow, that’s the only way we can earn money, but we don’t have enough from that,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t eat because we don’t have enough food… I don’t have money for taking Jude to school. I want him to have a proper education. I don’t want him to stay at home – I want him to learn, if I get enough money.”
The European Commission has funded the economic empowerment programme since 2012, and additional funding was awarded in August 2017 by the Big Lottery Fund. This generous support has helped to transform the lives of hundreds of young people with disabilities in Uganda.