I have never had a denser learning and living, travel and research experience than the two weeks I spent in Kenya for the "Disability Rights in Kenya: Networks, Practices, and Resources" collaborative initiative between The Ohio State University scholars and Kenyan researchers. The initiative was designed as a springboard for more potential long-term project to study various aspects of disability-related issues in Kenya. For me, this experience was life-changing in both personal and professional ways. A pentad of five points appear to me now as the figure that diagrams both a reconstruction of this two-week experience while it also maps future directions that our collaborative, and my own individual, work might take in continuing elements of this project.

First, of interest to me was the issue of the recent passage of Kenya's Disability Act (in 2003) and how to move now from the spirit of the law to its "letter" — how to implement, enact, and enforce all that law sets forth. We listened intently to our Kenyan colleagues, many of whom had played key roles in the development and passage of this Act, express their concerns about the future implementation of this law. And although many things are clearly different in the United States than they are in Kenya, I was reminded about how what we are just learning from the passage, enforcement, and new "history" of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might well inform Kenyan activists, policymakers, and scholars for their unfolding future. I also came to believe that a continued and concerted exchange with Kenyans as their own law finds its legs (the ability metaphors are indeed everywhere) will be informative to us in America as we move into the second generation of the ADA. How both countries might share useful exchanges about the development of disability policy and the enactment and enforcement of key disability legislation seems of significance to me. Likewise, a meaningful exchange should come from our shared knowledge about our different stages in the implementation, enactment, and enforcement of such policies and laws, as well as our understandings — divergent but also perhaps complementary — of disability as it is situated in our different social, economic, and political contexts.

In another, second area of needed exchange, at the conference in Nairobi in particular, I was struck often by the thinness of general knowledge about disability studies as a growing interdisciplinary field. This state was not so much a "lack" as it was more a state of (un)available resources or perhaps of undeveloped avenues (like the Nairobi conference itself) where the interdisciplinary force and freshness of disability studies could be fruitfully brought to bear. One primary project that especially engages me then for the future is to find a way to better exchange resources (books, journal articles) about and in disability studies with our Kenyan colleagues. I would also like to work towards coordinating a major international conference on "Disability in a Global Context."

Also from the Nairobi conference, and connected as well to my goal of organizing a global disability conference, I will carry with me for a long time one presentation in particular — that of Michael Karanja from the Kakuma refugee camp near the Sudan border where 17,000 "lost boys" from Sudan were originally supported. Karanja's presentation on "Disability in the Contexts of Displacement," now fleshed out as an article in this issue, hit bedrock for me on a number of planes: as the co-editor of Disability Studies Quarterly; as co-editor of two recent book collections and one special journal issue all centered on the "new disability studies"; as a recent participant in a World Bank conference on "disability, development, and the world" (see: http://www.worldbank.org/disability); and as the coordinator of OSU's disability studies minor and instructor of a course on "The Disability Experience in the Contemporary World." From all these contexts and perspectives, Karanja's presentation grounded for me an important place we perhaps have not yet traveled to enough (if at all) in a necessary discussion of disability in global contexts. I have since worked to address this situation with some focus on disability and displacement in my senior capstone course. Additionally, in Fall 2007, following on the trip to Kenya and building on the information I had from Karanja's presentation, I lead a freshman "Common Book" discussion on my campus about "disability and displacement" in a global context. This discussion also wove in the students' reading of the 2007 "common book" for new The Ohio State University students, Dave Eggers' What is the What? The primary subject of Eggers' "biography," Valentino Achek Deng — a Sudanese "lost boy" who had found his way to America — also visited campus that fall and I helped lead a lunch question and discussion period with him for approximately 100 students on my campus.

Fourth, I was struck by both what was missing and what was distinctly present in the disability landscape of contemporary Kenya. Blindness, for example, is a big deal. By American and British disability studies standards, a noticeably significant number of empowered, engaged blind people spoke to and with us at the Nairobi conference. Our trip into the Nairobi "suburbs" to visit the Dagoretti workshop for blind adults and the clean, well-lighted successful space of the Kwale district's eye center made it clear to me that blindness occupies both some resources and imagination in Kenya's new attention to disability. In a quick study, I could easily enough suggest some reasons for this attention. But I think the "state of blindness in Kenya" would be well worth further critical, engaged study — and the kind of study that would need to make good use of the interdisciplinary models provided by the "new" disability studies as blindness were approached historically, religiously, medically, and sociologically. Meanwhile, from the flip side, we encountered virtually no discussion of mental illness/disorder and very little around cognitive disability. Our trip on the very last day (Friday June 22, 2007) to the Kwale district's School for the Mentally Handicapped, however, left this absence powerfully present and haunting all of our scholarly minds and human souls.

Finally and fifth, I found myself fascinated by the situation around language(s) for deaf students and adults in Kenya. While there is growing knowledge of a "Kenyan Sign Language," there are, as of yet, no real published resources that would help deaf students and adult learn and share their native sign language in a more formalized way. Because of this situation, in the Kwale district deaf school I visited, I saw the children clearly using something that was not American Sign Language in the school yard at recess but when I met with them in the classroom, they were largely using American (English) based signs because these, of course, were available in books and also no doubt helped them in making some literate transfer to their learning of printed English. Likewise, with the five deaf adult workers in the Mombasa-based Bombolulu workshop that I met (see: http://www.apdkbombolulu.org/index.php), we patched together a conversation using some of the ASL signs they knew, some Kenyan signs I was quickly learning, and pen and paper to write a few English words and make a few drawings too. Some further study of this densely layered language learning/use situation would be not only fascinating but useful; the blend of Kiswhali, Kenyan Sign Language, home-developed signs many of the children bring with them when they start school there, American Sign Language, particularly in its pidgin contact form of "Signed Exact English," and written English all seemed to float in the air of the Kwale district deaf school. More practically, a project to simply get more resources in the hands of these deaf children — to publish a book of Kenyan sign language! — and to develop a high school so that they can attend school past 8th grade is very much needed.

Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2009 Brenda Brueggemann

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)