Starting with the education system, Kevin Long is utilizing resources from developed nations to support, mentor, and train teachers in developing countries with teaching methodologies targeted specifically at deaf students. Through the work of his organization, Global Deaf Connection (GDC), these students are encouraged to gain higher education and become trained professionals. They are then linked with deaf education professionals as mentors. Finally, GDC partners with the government to provide deaf professionals with employment opportunities, including those at deaf schools, to alleviate the dependence on outside resources. This sustainable model not only improves the education system but also creates a mechanism for improving economic and social conditions for the deaf community and society as a whole.
The New Idea
Kevin is increasing the social, economic, and educational opportunities for deaf people in developing nations. Witnessing the gap between the number of deaf students enrolled in school at an elementary age and the number of deaf working professionals, Kevin created the Global Deaf Connection (GDC), an organization based on the premise that education leads to opportunity.
In contrast to the current model of placing hearing teachers–trained to teach hearing students–in deaf schools, Kevin is creating a cycle of support that will enable these teachers to teach their deaf students effectively. By tapping into resources from developed nations, mentors are placed with hearing teachers to train them in sign language and deaf education teaching techniques that will increase communication and heighten the success of their lessons. Students respond to the methodology and improve the likelihood of their success in the education system.
But the support cycle goes beyond increasing the effectiveness of deaf students' education. Kevin realizes that there are still barriers and cultural stereotypes that prohibit deaf students from becoming active professionals in society. Although bridging the gap between teachers and students will impact the cultural stereotypes within schools, GDC has also created a College Support Program to assist deaf students through higher education, to help them achieve professional degrees, and then to partner with the government to find jobs that will allow deaf people to utilize their education.
As credentialed professionals entering the work force, hearing and deaf members of society increase their interaction and their understanding and acceptance of one another. This shift will highlight the potential of deaf people and, in turn, remove the economic burden of the government and social organizations to support deaf people who have traditionally not been active contributors to the economy. More specifically, by encouraging a percentage of these deaf students to obtain professional degrees in teaching, GDC hopes that they will complete the cycle by entering back into the education system with the communication, teaching, and mentoring methods needed to end the reliance on resources from developed nations. The aim is for the cycle to become self-sustaining, providing a critical method of education, economic development, and opportunity to increase the social well-being for this target population.
According to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), approximately 80 percent of deaf people live in developing countries, where authorities are rarely familiar with their needs and where very few deaf children have access to education. Only about 20 percent of the world's deaf population receive any education at all, and only 1 percent receive this education in sign language, even though the great majority of deaf people worldwide use sign language in their daily lives. Beyond education, unemployment rates are high in the deaf community. Many nations even deny to their deaf and hard of hearing citizens several fundamental civil rights, including voting, working, and driving.
For example, in Kenya there are over 14,000 children with hearing impairments. Only a small percentage of these children will attend school because of the stereotype that "education is a waste of time and money because deaf people will never become productive members in society." To serve the children who do access the education system, there are 41 schools for deaf children in Kenya, with over 100 students at each school. Most of the teachers do not know sign language or understand deaf culture. Their primary teaching methods are writing lessons on blackboards and pointing. Only 5 percent of the students go on to secondary school, and there is no mechanism to help them attend college.
Another major problem these children face is the lack of positive role models who can communicate successfully and mentor them to reach their full potential. As a result, most of the young people do poorly or fail their classes. They cannot imagine attending college, let alone becoming a successful professional. Society tells them that they are "dumb." This is a problem worldwide. Deaf children and adults are relegated to a low social status without economic opportunities –all as a result of the poor education they receive, the stigmas they face, and the lack of awareness of their potential.
Although there are organizations within most developing countries that provide services to deaf adults, ranging from human rights to general health and welfare, their educational components focus either on strict financial support to help children attend school or on workshops and conferences directed at public education. Although they will be key partners for GDC, none of these organizations address the gap between the education system and professional employment and how to help deaf children bridge it.
To develop a self-sustaining cycle of deaf education and leadership skills that will lead to educated professionals, Global Deaf Connection has implemented three essential components. First is the skills Support Program. This program sends volunteer teams of deaf education professionals from the U.S. to a developing nation for six weeks. During the first week, through GDC, the volunteers train in the local sign language (each country has a different sign language) and enhance their cultural awareness. During the last five weeks they pair with local teachers in deaf schools to improve the communication between students and teachers, and provide teaching methods and sign language training to teachers. These successful deaf adult volunteers also inspire the students to raise their educational and professional goals, altering the social stereotypes that have been limited in their choices.
Second is the College Support Program. Building off the Skills Support Program, this new model sponsors deaf students who have graduated from high school into a teacher training college, including a full-time sign language interpreter. These students graduate from teacher training college and are hired by the government to teach at a school for deaf children (made possible by a partnership through GDC). The third component is the Mentor Support Program. It connects an experienced deaf education teacher with a beginning teacher to provide technical assistance and mentoring through year-round trainings and communication. Once new teachers have been mentored for a year, they have the skills and ability to become a mentor for other teachers.
Piloted in Kenya in 2000, GDC has sent two groups of U.S. volunteers for the Skills Support Program. There has been a notable increase in the effectiveness of both teacher training methods and their communication skills. Eight students were inspired by the first group of volunteers and entered the College Support Program. Sponsored and supported by GDC, these eight students earned their professional credentials, and with assistance of the government they have found jobs in different elementary schools around the country. They are the first class to complete the College Support Program and the first to launch the Mentoring Support Program. Encouraged by the results of the first eight deaf professional teachers, 15 new students have applied for the College Support Program, and parents have been encouraged to sponsor their children in the teacher training college as well.
Moving forward, GDC will have at least one deaf Kenyan teacher or long-term mentor in all 41 deaf schools within the next two to three years. The number of deaf Kenyans who stay in school and who will succeed to a higher level of education will increase by 50 percent. Curriculum materials and a lexicon of Kenyan sign language will be developed. In 5 to 10 years, the country will see a spiraling effect in a rapidly growing number of deaf teachers, followed by deaf administrators, and other deaf professionals. Global Deaf Connection's involvement will become minimal as Kenyan deaf professionals continue the progress.
Since 80 percent of deaf people live in developing nations, market demand for GDC programs is high. Accordingly, Kevin designed the model to be transferable. The cycle can be replicated in countries that meet these criteria: a desire to improve systems of education for deaf children; deaf people who can teach Americans their native sign languages; universities that will provide deaf college students with interpreters and supports needed to earn their teaching certificates; and a government program to then hire the new teachers for schools for deaf children. In response to inquires from more than 15 developing countries, Kevin has already visited Jamaica and begun research and conversations with China and Mexico.
Partnering with local deaf organizations, such as branches of the National Association of the Deaf and the World Federation of the Deaf, Kevin is providing a model for deaf professionals to utilize many of the services these organizations offer once they are educated. To create a truly international model and to gain the confidence of many of these organizations, he is marketing both to Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university in the world for deaf and hard-of-hearing people and at international conferences to find deaf education volunteers beyond the U.S. Kevin has also developed an exit strategy to use once the cycle has generated enough results to ensure its sustainability and so prevent its being a U.S.-dependent model.
GDC has recently implemented a fourth component to its model–the Connection Support Program for income generation. For a nominal fee, this program sends groups of people, both hearing and deaf, to developing countries for a volunteer work experience. The volunteers work with local community members to renovate existing deaf education facilities while gaining a new cultural experience. The Skills Support and the Mentor Support Programs also use the same income-generating model of changing fees to relieve GDC's dependence on grants and other funding mechanisms, thus making the core organization sustainable.
Spreading this education-based model to developing countries around the world, GDC will change mainstream stereotypes of the deaf community's potential contribution to society, provide a tool for deaf individuals to become socially and economically advanced, and supply a sustainable mechanism for governments and social organizations to utilize the deaf community as active contributors to society.
Kevin Long grew up in Minnesota during the 1970s. The household was a regimented environment where his mother focused on raising four sons and his father focused on working two jobs to support the family. As a youngster, Kevin spent free time volunteering and creating small business enterprises.
During high school, Kevin attended an all-boys military academy. Although it provided discipline and opportunities that Kevin appreciated, he struggled both with the course work and with the culture. During the first year Kevin was diagnosed with dyslexia, which explained why he was working twice as hard as his classmates to keep up. As it happened, over the course of several years, Kevin had become interested in his aunt's profession as a sign language interpreter. So during the period of struggling with dyslexia, Kevin began taking sign language classes at the local community college. "When my aunt would come over and show me signs, I would just naturally pick it up_then when I took my first sign class, it was the first time in my life that I loved school."
This was just the spark that Kevin needed to begin to challenge the "graduate and get a job" life model he had been taught. As soon as he completed high school, Kevin decided that he would work during the day and take college classes as night so that he was able to pay for his higher education. "I always wanted to set my own path and be really independent," he recalls. "And, I always wanted to start my own business." And so he worked, attended college, and started his own business.
In 1994, at the age of 19, Kevin launched "LopeWear"–an enterprise that recognized a growing demand among young people for "crazy colored and patterned fleece hats." Kevin taught himself how to design, sew, and market these hats for about half the price of similar hats in stores. He partnered with local schools and clubs as distribution channels, New York fabric suppliers for bulk discounts, and a local sewing company to contract additional production workers during peak months. After three years, LopeWear allowed Kevin to quit his full-time job, pay for his education, save thousands of dollars for future endeavors, and most importantly, taught him when to take smart risks. After three years, realizing the trend was changing, he decided to focus on his interest in becoming a sign language interpreter rather than on finding a new niche in the fashion markets.
As Kevin explored sign language, he became immersed in deaf culture. He became the first hearing staff member at a group home for vulnerable deaf adults, attended parties with deaf friends, and pushed his learning curve. In 1996 he was offered the opportunity to become a volunteer teacher in Kenya for a semester. An avid traveler, Kevin jumped at the opportunity.
For two weeks Kevin studied every waking moment becoming fluent in Kenyan sign language. When he paused to assess his progress, Kevin realized that he was the best signer among all the teachers. In fact, the teachers could barely sign at all. They had been trained to teach but not to teach deaf children, and so their methodologies entailed writing lessons on the blackboard. Kevin's realization was solidified when he asked a young student what she wanted to be when she grew up and she looked at him puzzled and responded, "But I'm deaf." Every weekend Kevin started traveling to deaf schools around Kenya, researching and developing the idea for the Global Deaf Connection.
Upon his return to the U.S., Kevin recognized that his passion for deaf culture could become his next venture. Continuing his study of sign language for credibility, and pursuing a second degree in international nonprofit management, Kevin picked up part-time jobs to permit the flexible schedule he needed to continue building his program. The seed of that idea grew from the first incorporation in 1997 as the Kenya Foundation for Deaf Education, to the East Africa Deaf Connection, to its current form as the Global Deaf Connection–demonstrating all the while the progression and obsession of Kevin's apprenticeship through business school to the work of GDC today.