The power of visual communication

An international team of researchers are discovering new ways for deaf African children to interact sooner and get a head start in life.

A medical practitioner signing to a young child  who is using a behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aid. The child is stat with their parent/carer.

In an ideal world, childhood deafness is identified early, so that parents and health workers can ensure deaf children develop their language and communication skills at the same pace as any other child.

But screening children at birth and providing specialist early years support requires extensive resources – resources that simply aren’t available in many African countries.

The first deaf school in West Africa was set up in the 1950s in Ghana, by the deaf African-American missionary Andrew Foster. Seventy years on, the country has well-established deaf schools in every region, teaching children from age four onwards. Yet children and their families rarely receive support before this – there is no infrastructure to screen children’s hearing in Ghana – so parents and caregivers are left to find their own ways of communicating with their deaf children.

That’s why a team from Ghana and the UK have been looking at the most successful strategies that parents/carers use, to determine how best to support others in providing rich learning environments for hearing-impaired children. The aim is to deliver tools for caregivers, ensuring children receive the best help with their language and communication in the early years.

Building on existing strategies

“Most deaf children are born to hearing parents and for many parents, this is their first experience of deafness,” explains Professor Ruth Swanwick, who leads the research.

“Our aim isn’t to say: ‘you’re doing it wrong; you must do this’. Neither could we just import what we do in the UK, as the context in Ghana is very different. Instead, we wanted to look at what strategies parents and caregivers are using now, to see what works for them, and then build on that to develop strategies that all parents can use.”

A young African girl in a classroom writing on a notepad. Two other young students are behind her, also writing.
The project involves working with schools and local health clinics across Ghana.

The team, from the University of Leeds and the University of Education Winneba (UEW) in Ghana, has been working with three schools for the deaf and their local health clinics in north, central and south Ghana. The schools are residential, with children cared for by ‘house parents’ during term time. The team set up interviews with these caregivers, teachers and clinicians who provide healthcare to the schools. They also filmed the interactions between the children and their caregivers, as they carry out chores around the house and in the community.

Dr Daniel Fobi was a lecturer and sign language interpreter at UEW before joining the University of Leeds to manage the project. He explains:

“The children will usually have some sign language, but parents and caregivers rarely do. So, if the parents speak and the children sign – how do they meet halfway to communicate? We wanted to see how caregivers ensure the children carry out their chores such as washing the dishes – how things worked practically – and it was fascinating to watch this during the filming.”

Discovering the value of visual communication

The team found that hearing caregivers and deaf children both rely on visual means of communicating, such as gestures and demonstration. The caregivers also combine this with spoken language.

With these strategies in mind, the team are now working with three leading members of the Ghana National Association of the Deaf to deliver a series of workshops with parents and caregivers, to demonstrate the most effective communication approaches and encourage parents to have more confidence.

A teacher signing — using visual communication techniques — to a young African schoolboy outside on a grassy playground.
Research has found that hearing caregivers and deaf children both rely on visual means of communication.

The workshops will look at communication strategies for managing behaviour, playing and reading with children, and ways to prepare them for school. The adults will also share their experiences of growing up deaf, to act as role models for the children and their families.

As well as providing practical support to parents and caregivers, the project is helping to highlight the importance of communication in the early stages of a child’s development, both with policymakers, researchers and teachers. The team has run a workshop for key decision makers within local and central government, including the Ghanaian Ministry of Education, to help raise the profile of deaf education and the needs of deaf children and their parents.

A young African girl, at a desk in a classroom, looking at a written note with her teacher.
Teacher training is now influenced by the team’s research in visual communication.

Research that influences practice

The research has also triggered more interest in early-stage development within University of Education Winneba, where around 90% of deaf teachers in Ghana are trained.

Dr Fobi says: “Our network of deaf schools has meant that research in Ghana into deaf education has mainly focused on school age children and students at college or university. Now researchers at UEW are starting to realise the need to start with what’s happening in early years within families, and work up from there. Our findings are also influencing teacher training, with more emphasis on teachers using communication tools that combine both visual and spoken language.”

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The University of Leeds was founded in 1904, and its origins go back to the nineteenth century with the founding of the Leeds School of Medicine in 1831.

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