Despite some African countries making efforts to ensure information is more accessible to communities with hearing impairments, a lack of sign language interpreters continues to keep them from accessing public services, courts and medical treatments. Throughout the pandemic, some signing communities were unable to receive vital information on prevention measures, nationwide curfews, and locations of lockdowns due to the information not being offered in sign language.
With the estimated number of people with some degree of hearing loss in Africa expected to increase from 136 million to 332 million by 2050, ensuring that information is available to these communities is more important than ever.
In 2019, the Parliament of Uganda enacted the Persons with Disabilities Act which, among other things, requires all newscasts on public and private television stations to have a sign language interpreter. Although this law represents progress, news for people who are hard of hearing remains rare in Uganda. A new TV station seeks to change this by creating content specifically designed for and presented by deaf people.
In April, African journalist Eroku Simon, who is deaf himself, founded Signs TV Uganda to ensure that people like him have access to full TV programming and news content. The channel is the country’s first to be dedicated to broadcasting media content entirely in Ugandan Sign language.
Although other news programs now feature interpreters to comply with the Persons with Disabilities Act, Simon says access to information for deaf people remains a challenge, as outlets use insets (small boxes on TV sets where interpreters sign during programs) to convey information. These insets are usually very small and make it hard for people with hearing impairments to understand what an interpreter is saying, he said.
"Deaf people in Uganda only access information during the news hours," he said. "As a result, they miss out on relevant information during [other] programs."
Suzan Mujjawa, the outlet’s co-founder and production lead, said that the main motivator to start the project came during the pandemic, when a deaf man was shot in Northern Uganda after the military found him walking outside during curfew hours.
"They thought he was disobeying orders after they asked him where he was going and he couldn't respond," she said. "They shot him and he died at the hospital."
Mujjawa said the incident showed her how much deaf people lacked access to information. This led Mujjawa and Simon to decide that presenting all information from mainstream media in accessible formats would be Signs TV’s primary goal. By ensuring information is available to this community, they hope to help deaf people make better informed decisions.
Making access to information easy
Signs TV Uganda is run weekly by Simon and Mujjawa, who are full-time staff members. They are supported by four volunteer news anchors, each of whom have hearing impairments, and two sign language interpreters. The plan is to make all volunteers full-time workers.
Before the outlet commenced programming, Simon and his team conducted market research to figure out their audience’s preferences. This research helped the channel’s team determine what content their viewers want most, the time they want to watch the programming, what they would pay for content and more.
So far, the outlet has produced news bulletins, documentaries and adverts, including one that looked at how a Ugandan deaf carpenter is beating the odds in the world of carpentry. The outlet’s content includes captions and voice-overs in English to ensure that viewers who are not deaf can watch the programming too.
Although Signs TV Uganda has experienced a great deal of success within just a few months of its founding, it has faced challenges as well. Obstacles such as a lack of sufficient manpower, limited finances and equipment have made it difficult for Simon and his team to produce content daily.
“Producing content requires that we access media content from the mainstream journalists, and this also requires money which we currently do not have,” said Simon. “We hope that we will be able to get through this in the months ahead.”
According to Simon, the outlet is currently looking for more funding, partners and sponsors who are willing to invest to enable him and his team to produce quality content that viewers will tune into.
One recent windfall came in November 2021, when Signs TV Uganda applied for and received financial support from Aga Khan University Graduate School of Journalism under its Media Futures project. Simon said that the grant helped the outlet buy equipment such as laptops and maintain running costs like fuel, stationery and branding materials.
“We also want to have collaboration that can take us to the commercialization level because we now have proof that this is going to be a successful venture if more resources are injected into it,” said Simon.
Plans for the future
Moving forward, Signs TV Uganda wants to receive an operations license from the Uganda Communication Commission, which will make its services available on TV providers such as DSVT, StartTimes and Azam TV.
In the long term, Simon said that the goal is for the channel to be established throughout Africa to provide information to deaf people across the continent. The outlet also plans to start the #Signs Reporters fellowship, which will help identify and train deaf people to be proficient in sign language.
“We will then equip them with knowledge of sign language so they can be able to report from their localities and we [will] provide them [with] the platform to broadcast [their stories],” he said. “In fact, we want to be the most inclusive TV channel offering everyone a chance to watch our programming.”