Raising the Status of Sign Language

Scholarship Helps Young Deaf Kenyan Pursue His Dreams

Nickson Kakiri is one of the first individuals to receive a World Deaf Leadership scholarship, which is funded by the Nippon Foundation to foster the next generation of Deaf and hard-of-hearing leaders in developing countries. Since his graduation, Kakiri has advocated the inclusion of the Kenyan sign language as an official language in the country’s Constitution and sought to improve the lives and livelihood of the Deaf in Kenya, his home country.


Photo of a scene from the symposium on the world’s sign languages and education in sign languageGallaudet University in Washington DC is the world’s preeminent institution of higher learning for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. All of the classes at the university are taught in sign language, and students are able to study a full range of subjects, spanning everything from law to art.

The Nippon Foundation set up a scholarship fund at Gallaudet University in 1993 for students from the developing countries. It subsequently established the World Deaf Leadership Scholarship program in 2003 to enable potential leaders from the developing countries to study at the university.

In June 2013, a symposium on the world’s sign languages and education in sign language, sponsored jointly by Gallaudet University and the Nippon Foundation, was held in Japan. Kakiri traveled to Japan to attend the symposium, where he gave a talk on the importance of the scholarship program and his activities in Kenya following his graduation from Gallaudet. We sat down with Kakiri for an interview during his trip to Japan to find out more about his interests and activities.

INTERVIEWER Could you tell us about how you came to receive the WDL scholarship from the Nippon Foundation at Gallaudet University, and why you chose the university?

PhotoNICKSON KAKIRI I was selected by Gallaudet University based on my record and potential to give back to the Deaf community. The WDL scholarship requires that the recipient has leadership experience and has contributed to the Deaf community. Since I was already involved with the Deaf community in Kenya, I was well qualified and met the WDL requirements. I chose Gallaudet University because it was more accessible to me compared to regular universities in Kenya. This is because almost all of the professors at Gallaudet are skilled at sign language and able to communicate effectively in the classroom with Deaf students. It is the only university for the Deaf in world.

INTERVIEWER Please share one of your most memorable experiences during your studies at Gallaudet University. How has that experience helped your activities in Kenya?

KAKIRI While I was at Gallaudet I was very involved with student organizations as a student leader. I was the president of an international student organization; this gave me leadership experience in addition what I learned from my studies and work on campus. I was able to participate and be part of a university committee on academic policies. I was also able to participate in a mock trial as the only international student among the Deaf Americans participating because I was taking law and political courses. This prepared me for my advocacy activities.

INTERVIEWER In what ways has the Nippon Foundation’s support been beneficial to your studies and activities in Kenya?

KAKIRI The Nippon Foundation made it possible for me to study without interruption because my school tuition was always covered. This allowed me to concentrate on my studies. And after returning to Kenya, the Nippon Foundation funding has made it easier for me to carry on with advocacy activities, most notably the effort to have Kenyan Sign Language recognized as an official language in Kenya. I have used the funds received to pursue this project, knowing that once that becomes the law it will have a huge impact on the lives of Deaf people in Kenya. I will always appreciate the Nippon Foundation’s generous support, which has made it possible to reach my current level.

INTERVIEWER At the moment here in Japan as well, there is a movement to officially recognize sign language, and the Nippon Foundation supports this effort. Could you elaborate the benefits of such initiatives, based on your own experience in Kenya?

KAKIRI When you look at the Deaf community, by definition it is a linguistic minority. Having a language is equivalent to having a culture. Sign language is the heart of the Deaf community. Making sign language an official language not only would break down communication barriers, but also show that Deaf people are citizens with rights protected under international and local laws. Legislation on sign language would be a symbol of respecting the human right of Japanese citizens and would help to eradicate the stigmas associated with Deaf persons. It would promote national cohesion and the pride in knowing that everyone is equal before the law. It would inspire Deaf people to contribute to society, drawing on their diverse talents for the sake of economic innovation.

INTERVIEWER What advice would you give to the prospective WDL students at Gallaudet University?

KAKIRI The journey is not an easy one, nor does it happen in just one day; determination and persistency are necessary to produce result. Students should realize that when one Deaf person gets an education, it can give millions a chance to live in a barrier-free society. Along with their studies, it is important for students to also be involved in extracurricular activities at university. An education involves more than sitting in a classroom and passing exams; it is also about how well you can create opportunities for others. We all have to remember the importance of helping to improve society in practical ways.

Photographs by Kei Kodera