In-depth | Disabilities

Living without hearing

By - 29.12.2019

What’s it like to be deaf in Kosovo?

A girl’s dress is drawn in chalk on a green board at the front of the class. Carefully annotated with all the dimensions and measurements, it looks as if it is ready to be transformed from chalk to material via the needle of a sewing machine and sent out into the real world.

Seventeen-year-old Artina Berisha stands in front of the board in one of the classrooms at the “Mother Teresa” Resource Center in Prizren. As she demonstrates the creative process of coming up with a new dress, her professional practice teacher, Gjyltene Kovanxhiu, keeps a close eye on her progress.

Originally from Peja, Artina is one of 68 children at this special school that offers an adapted learning environment for deaf children. As she prepares the dress for the sewing machine, her teacher reminds her to carry out the final checks.

Besides the full-day learning schedule, pupils at the Resource Center are also able to participate in professional practice lessons such as this one in tailoring as well as cooking lessons, while all but the preschoolers board in the school’s dormitories.

Artina shows off the dress she designed. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Other practical lessons such as metalwork and carpentry were also available in the past, but now the teachers for both of these classes have retired and the school is still in search of new ones. “We are having problems finding new teachers for these two classes,” says school director Yrmet Shabani.

The school — one of five such institutions in Kosovo that offers special assistance to children with a range of additional needs — appears relatively well equipped in terms of infrastructure, but the teachers don’t speak sign language and they need the constant assistance of interpreters during classes.

As Artina talks to us about her everyday challenges and her hopes for the future, her words are interpreted by Versa Selmani-Huduti, a trained professional in bimodal bilingual language and one of only two sign language interpreters who work at the school. 

Artina says she dreams of becoming a designer and working for a stylist in the future, where she could draw the dresses before taking them into production. “My drawings are good and I would like to keep doing this,” she says.

Like many deaf people in Kosovo, Artina’s primary concern is education. 

“The quality of education here [in the school] should grow,” Artina says. “We need more tools and professional people to teach us new skills.”

The Kosovar Association of the Deaf says that the quality of education is the main problem for deaf people in Kosovo, especially when it comes to the point when high school students want to enroll in university.

Deaf students relaxing at school. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

According to its 2010 Report of the Status of Deaf People in Republic of Kosovo, 96% of deaf children that finish high school do not get the same level of education as their peers and leave high school with no elementary skills in reading and writing. This deprives them of the opportunity to continue onto university education.

Habit Hajredini, the director of the Office of Good Governance, which is responsible for advising the prime minister on human rights, equal opportunities and anti-discrimination issues, acknowledges the problem and believes it is very worrying. He says that the Ministry of Education needs to invest a lot more in training staff that would be specialized to work with people who have additional needs and that there should be better monitoring of the standard of education being delivered.

“Someone should inspect [the schools to see] why students are still coming out as illiterate even after finishing high school,” he says. “It’s unacceptable!”

Meanwhile, the Law on Vocational Ability, Rehabilitation and Employment of People with Disabilities clearly says that — across all sectors — for every 50 employees employed by an organization or institution, at least one must be a person with a disability. But this provision is widely violated.

A student at the School for the Deaf in Prizren. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Selmani-Huduti explains that after students leave the “Mother Teresa” school in Prizren, they usually end up going back home and living with their parents, largely because of the lack of education opportunities and limited prospects of getting a job.

Small signs of change?

One of those who is defying the odds is Armend Ademi. The charismatic 32-year-old is today employed as an advocate for deaf people’s rights by the Kosovar Association of the Deaf, raising awareness of the needs of deaf people in society and trying to ensure that other members of the deaf community have equal opportunities.

Armend learnt the trade of carpentry, but has never had the opportunity to put his training into professional practice. He became deaf following health issues when he was just 8 months old and struggled badly during his primary education at Prishtina’s “Elena Gjika” school, facing many problems with the lack of communication, which made it impossible to learn how to read and write.

Upon leaving primary school after ninth grade, he went on to complete his high school education at the “Mother Teresa” Resource Center in Prizren. He says the environment was more appropriate for him, since by then he had learned sign language better and was able to make more friends and learn a trade, although learning was still difficult since the teachers did not know how to sign.

Armend managed to get some work experience, working as a shop assistant in his uncle’s clothing store, before working on a project run by the Czech Republic in Kosovo. When he was offered a job at the Kosovar Association of the Deaf, he says he couldn’t refuse.

In many ways, Armend’s life looks like that of many young men in Kosovo. In the Kodra e Trimave, the neighborhood he now lives in, his brick house without a facade is located in an alley where the houses are close to one another, just like the residents.

But beneath his positive exterior, Armend also faces daily challenges.

“My body is made of two parts. On one side, I have to connect with my relatives, all of whom can hear and talk, while the other part of my body belongs to the deaf community,” he says. “I have had to connect and combine the two so that I could live a bit more easily.”

With his family members not knowing more than a few words in sign language, he says he uses gesticulations to describe objects in his communication with his relatives.

A lack of adequate sign language services is also an issue when it comes to accessing public services. Armend says that the provision of sign language services is far below what is required and cannot be relied upon.

“Since sign language services have [rarely] been provided, I’ve always faced issues,” Armend says. “I live with six family members and I’ve always sought help from them when I’ve had to communicate.”

Access to sign language services is a concern for deaf people throughout Kosovo. There are just 16 certified sign language interpreters in the whole of Kosovo, serving around 9,500 members of the deaf community, 5,000 of whom have lost their hearing completely, while the remaining 4,500 suffer from partial hearing loss. 

The provision of such a service at all is a relatively new development as it was only introduced in 2013. 

Hajredini says that there has been discrimination against deaf people for years because they have faced difficulties in communicating, even for rudimentary services and needs. “[Before 2013] there were cases when they were given the wrong medical diagnosis, or when they could not tell their version of the story to the judge in court due to lack of interpreters,” he says.

In the city she lives in, Prizren, there are just five certified sign language interpreters.

Now, Hajredini says that the government pays around 35,000 euros each year to interpreters — 10 euros for every hour of service. In the period between January and October 2019, the Office of Good Governance — which coordinates the interpretation service — financed 2,595 hours of interpreting services at a cost of 25,950 euros. 

According to the Office of Good Governance’s figures, around 60 people seek interpreting services each month, with most demand from Prishtina, Prizren and Gjakova. 

When a deaf person in Kosovo needs interpreting services, be it for an urgent medical appointment or a visit to the local municipality for a document, they must notify the Office of Good Governance to ask for the nearest interpreter and then wait for a response. According to the Kosovar Association of the Deaf, the answer is usually positive for urgent matters, but not for all other cases.

Like Armend, Artina says that this creates a problem because she cannot always rely on help from her family members for interpreting services. “We have difficulties when we go to the doctor and we cannot communicate because there are no interpreters there,” she says.

In the city she lives in, Prizren, there are just five certified sign language interpreters; Selmani-Huduti says that with such limited capacity, it is difficult to meet the needs for every person in the city.

The politics of being deaf

When K2.0 visits Armend for the first time, it is the pre-election campaign period in Kosovo, and he is indignant that political parties do not provide interpretation of their rallies and speeches so that he can also understand what they are offering for his future.

But the limited availability of interpretation services is one of a string of frustrations that members of the deaf community have with Kosovo’s political leadership.

One of Armend’s colleagues at the Association office ironically says that the politicians will likely start to visit them from the next day onward. “During elections, they love us a lot, they respect us and they make it seem as though they think only about us,” he says.

Armend Ademi. Photo courtesy of Armend Ademi.

When it comes to actually implementing meaningful reforms that will make a difference to their lives, they say it is a different picture.

Members of the community say they feel excluded by institutions and the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, which they say are not pushing forward a law that would regulate financial assistance and other support specifically for deaf people. 

The Law on Pension Schemes Financed by the State does not cover deaf people in its Disability Pension provision. In order to receive a pension, deaf people must have an additional disability to be eligible for social assistance of about 90 euros per month. They must also be unemployed, according to the Deaf Association.

 But Armend says that the aid they receive from the state is trivial and does not fulfill basic needs for living a normal life. “People have children, and 90 euros is sometimes insufficient to get you through the day, let alone cover your needs for a whole month,” Armend says. “We have extraordinary problems and this covers nothing.”

Enver Kurtalani, head of the Association, agrees with him. As a representative of 12 local associations, he says that the amount offered doesn’t coincide with reality and makes life hard for members of the community.

“It’s hard to live off the current pension,” he says. “A person can spend that money to fulfill their needs within a week. It is unimaginable to live off that pension for a whole month.”

Kurtalani also objects to the fact that deaf people have to present themselves as having additional disabilities in order to gain their right to social support. 

Whether or not deafness constitutes a disability has been a longstanding debate amongst deaf people. One camp maintains that deaf people do not have a disability, but that society has not been well enough adjusted to accommodate the deaf, who simply belong to a different linguistic or societal community; in societies that have long considered the needs of deaf people, they can function relatively easily with very few disadvantages.

Others say that for as long as deafness is not the norm in society, deaf people are disadvantaged and may therefore find it hard to perform tasks that hearing people may take for granted; these people believe that deafness is therefore one of many forms of disability and should be treated as such.

Hajredini believes that until such a time when Kosovo is able to properly meet the needs of deaf people, then it’s important to ensure that they are compensated.

“They don’t have physical disabilities; this is a consequence of the problems in the education system,” he says. “The state hasn’t been able to offer them a good education, so they should give them some kind of support that comes as social assistance. It’s like giving social assistance to a person without disabilities just because they’re not well educated enough to have a job or other professional activity.”K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.