Friday, 05 October 2007

Disability World: Kevin Long

Global Deaf Connection: Interview with Kevin Long, Social Entepreneur

Interview by Ilene Zeitzer of Disability Policy Solutions (

Q. Disability World was very impressed that all three 2004 Hearne Award winners are working in international disability efforts and asked me to interview you. One of the things they want to know is why you created your own organization, why you felt that you couldn't work through existing organizations?

A. Ok, well I would have loved to work through an existing organization, but there's no one doing what we do in the world, that is, a whole approach to sustainable deaf education.

Q. Tell us what it is that your organization actually does?

A. It's called Global Deaf Connection and we bring sustainable deaf education to countries around the world.

Q. And how did you come to the conclusion that there wasn't anyone doing this kind of work around the world? Did you travel, or were you getting letters? Tell us about that.

A. In 1996, I went to teach at a school for the deaf in Kenya. I asked a girl there, "What are you going to do when you grow up?" and she looked at me with a puzzled face and said, "I'm deaf." And I was shocked. And then she said, "Does America have deaf people?" and I realized that not only does she think that she can't do anything but she doesn't even know about the success of the international deaf community in developing countries. That was the start of Global Deaf Connection.

Q. That was the seed?

A. That was the seed. And here's kind of the scope of the international deaf community. There are great organizations out there, for example, the World Federation of the Deaf, of which we are members. Their skill set is organizing international deaf conventions every four years. There are these huge conventions that deaf people from all over the world go to and network and the conventions are information-sharing sources. In addition, each country has a National Association of the Deaf, just like the United States has a National Association of the Deaf, of which we are also a member.

The thing about the deaf associations in each country though, is that they have an unbelievable amount of responsibility and in the developing countries, they have very limited resources to carry them out. I'm talking about sign language development, education, women's rights, court advocacy for interpreting, you name any issue that affects the deaf community, the associations are responsible for it. So, there are these great organizations out there, and these organizations are the key to the future for the deaf community. What Global Deaf Connection provides is a niche-focused support by empowering through education, which is only going to strengthen these organizations.

Q. Let's go back a little bit. What brought you to Kenya in the first place? What was the initial program or organization?

Visual learning & deaf culture

A. I come from a business background and never thought I would be doing what I'm doing today. I was running a small business and also, with my dyslexia, had an extremely hard time in school, hated school as a kid. I took a sign language class and loved it. The visual learning was something, it was the first time I liked school. So for me, it went from the first time of liking school to liking this language. Then I started to have a lot of deaf friends and started to fall in love with the deaf culture. So for me it went from a language thing, to understanding a whole culture. Then I went to Kenya and met that girl, and met those kids.

I'll paint you a picture. I show up at this school with 125 deaf kids, all the teachers are hearing, none of them can really sign, they write on a chalkboard and point. The deaf kids sit in classrooms all day. They don't understand what the teacher is talking about and they basically fail their way through the system. And so what really brought this whole issue full circle for me was the human rights issue -- those kids are not getting accessibility to education. Out of the 41 schools for the deaf in Kenya, only three of them are high schools because most of the kids basically fail their way through eighth grade and then go back to the family farm with parents and family that can't sign. They're isolated, they're alone. It's not an okay existence.

Work-vacation model

And for me, the answer is so simple. We need to focus efforts towards 1) mentoring and empowering deaf students so that they know they can do whatever they want to do, 2) creating a link between a secondary high school and a college education so that there is at least one path. So that way, a deaf first grader has the opportunity to go all the way through teachers' training college. We do the first step, the mentoring, by sending deaf education professionals overseas who volunteer their time. We use a work vacation model, so these people are deaf education professionals from all over the world who are paying us to go volunteer their time.

We set a U.S. tax deductible program fee and this brings an income to run our programs. Then these incredible people, with 10-15 years of experience in interpreting and deaf education, go over and mentor these students, mentor the hearing teachers, and the students are inspired. Then we pay for deaf graduates to go to a regular hearing teachers' training college. We pay for fulltime sign language interpreters of their own native sign language, we don't bring ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters over there. We pay for local interpreters to work full time at a teachers' training college, then we pay for deaf people to go to a teachers' training college.

Deaf schools get deaf instructors

We started this program five years ago. It's the first time in all of Africa that there had been full time sign language interpreters at a teachers' training college. We have been graduating a group every year and now we have a group of 20 deaf Kenyans who are starting teachers' training college in August. So almost half the deaf schools now in Kenya have a deaf teacher, there are 41 schools for the deaf (in Kenya). Almost half of them have a deaf teacher and two years from now every deaf school is going to have a deaf teacher. Then the last step of the cycle's success is that the deaf teacher is in the mentor support program. So, now you have this school that has 125 deaf kids. For the first time ever, a deaf Kenyan is hired by the government to be a teacher there. So that's 125 kids who, for the first time in their lives, see a successful deaf adult. For the first time in their lives, they can raise their hand and sign a question. This deaf adult is mentored by a GDC global ambassador with the result that this deaf Kenyan teacher becomes the leader of that school in teaching sign language to the hearing teachers.

Q. What brought you to Kenya in the first place?

A. Someone did a presentation in one of my sign language classes on the schools for the deaf in Kenya and I thought wow, you know, I'd like to go there and volunteer my time some day. And that was my connection. So she (my classmate) wrote a letter to the school, they wrote a letter back welcoming me to volunteer, and they gave me a free place to stay. I was 20 years old, I jumped on an airplane, and I had no international experience really to speak of. The school was like five hours outside the city of Nairobi, it wasn't on a map. It took me like two days to find it. I spent the most amazing six months of my life at this deaf school, with no electricity, no running water, and these amazing deaf kids. So that's how it all started.

Cultural bases of sign languages

Q. Let's go back to the issue of sign language. There is not a universal sign language. Most countries have their own sign language, and some don't have any. Is there a recognized sign language in Kenya?

A. Just like developing countries going through the same struggles in all different areas, including the rights of people with disabilities, Kenya is fighting for the right for sign language to be recognized. I mean it wasn't really recognized in the United States 20 years ago and now it's taught in colleges for college credit, taught in first grade classes. And so, every country has their own sign language, it's all culturally based. I get this question every time I do a presentation, they say, "Well, why isn't it the same?" And I always asked them, "Well, why doesn't everybody speak English?" And they say, "Well, it's different." And I say, "Why is it different, there's no difference?" An example I always give is the sign for coffee (in ASL) looks like the old grinders, grinding with two fists on top of each other, except you're going counter clockwise with your right hand, which looks an old coffee grinder grinding the beans. In Kenya, the sign for coffee is with your index finger and your middle finger picking a leaf and putting it over your back, which is picking the coffee and putting it in the basket behind you -- because that's cultural for Kenya. Now, you do a coffee grinder sign in Kenya, a lot of Kenyans have never even seen a coffee grinder. You know, a lot of Kenyans don't drink coffee. And if you do a picking sign in America, that won't make any sense because most Americans don't even know where coffee comes from. So it's all culturally based.

Kenya's sign language research project

Q. In Kenya, have they evolved a national, agreed upon, sort of universal sign language?

A. Well, you know, sign language is always a work in progress, continually getting more and more developed, but Kenya is very far ahead. They have a project that's funded through Sweden called Kenya's Sign Language Research Project (KSLRP). They have developed a Kenya Sign Language dictionary, they have Kenya Sign Language classes at the university, and now interpreting is becoming more popular in Kenya. A lot of it has to do with Global Deaf Connection as we hire fulltime sign language interpreters at teachers' training colleges to increase that demand.

Q. Is Kenya the only country that you work with at the moment?

A. We're in Jamaica and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Q. Each of these countries would have their own sign language or sign languages?

A. Right, I mean there are different dialects and variations in parts of the country, but that's the same as in the United States.

Sources of Funding

Q. You mentioned volunteers who pay their own way, but are there other sources of funding? For example, you're training people, so where does the funding from that come from, do you have grants?

A. First of all, our trips are income generating. So that brings in money. I mean, we send groups to Kenya, Jamaica, and the Congo and then people pay for the program fee plus they pay their own airfare. We also get a lot of pro bono time, we have mobilized professional resources pro bono to an amazing level. Since we started GDC, we've been in a free office space at a deaf church even though we're non-religious. Our board of directors is required to give a minimum eight hours a month plus a committee meeting. Our board is made up of 51% members of the deaf community, lawyers, business people, and so we have four running committees that do an amazing amount of work. We have Hill and Knowlton, the PR firm, that's doing all of our publicity, we have Clifford and Chance doing our free lawyers pro bono work, I could go on and on. We really have mobilized our volunteers in terms of pro bono work.

Q. But how do you pay staff, for example?

A. We're also funded through grants, we have a few local grants and we're starting to get federal funding. USAID funded us $250,000 for a project in the Congo. We're doing some amazing things, we're putting computers in a deaf school in the Congo with wireless Internet, we're connecting deaf Congolese with deaf Americans all over the world. We also do two special events in Minneapolis per year, we have some income generating programs and we sell cars. We are starting to get more on the income-generating side. I'm an Ashoka Fellow. Ashoka sponsors social entrepreneurs that have a new idea for social change, basically people using business concepts in the social sector. I was elected with 13 other people from the U.S. and Canada two years ago and it's a fulltime fellowship for three years for social entrepreneurs to get their idea off the ground.

Q. And your idea is?

A. Global Deaf Connection, and the Cycle of Success.

Q. And do they look for something unique about your idea?

A. It has to be a new idea. There are four criteria, the Web site is and our Web site is

Sustainable deaf education - the concept

Q. As far as the Ashoka Fellowship is concerned, what was the unique idea of the Global Deaf Connection?

A. Well, there are three organizations that bring deaf education professionals or sign language interpreters overseas to do mentoring. So, they go to schools for about two weeks and then they come home. It has been happening for some time now that deaf people have gone to college and had interpreters. But no one has taken a full approach to sustainable deaf education for an entire country in a developing country like Global Deaf Connection has. What we do is to take all these concepts and put them together. Our goal is to be in and out in five years.

When we are invited into a country, we work with the deaf community, get local buy-in, use their sign language, and then exit in five years. So the process is: we send over deaf education professionals; we pay for deaf people to go to the teachers' training college; and when every deaf school has a deaf teacher, we pay to send a deaf education professional overseas to mentor these new deaf teachers to be the leaders of their schools. Using the example of Kenya, once there are 41 deaf in Kenya, all the teachers are mentored and have become leaders of their schools, they are all hired by their own governments because we do advocacy work, then we can leave the country. So, we expect to be out of Kenya in two years.

Q. And then you'll go somewhere else?

A. Yes, so now we're in Kenya, Congo, and Jamaica. Then what happens in two years from now is the money we make from our income-generating programs and our grants we'll use towards sponsoring a group of 40 deaf Jamaicans into college. So, basically it takes us about five years to create sustainable deaf education for an entire country. Once we get fully funded up to capacity, which is going to be basically having four full time staff, we are going to be able to handle five to 10 countries at a time. And what that would mean, is that every year, after a five cycle, ever year we'll be finishing five to 10 countries, so in our life time there can be sustainable deaf education for the world. Which is great, to achieve a vision. Because most visions in nonprofit organizations are these huge visions that will never be accomplished. So it's really fun to have a giant vision that can actually happen in one lifetime.

Obstacles to the dream

Q. So what are your obstacles, what were your obstacles when you started and what do you see as your obstacles now?

A. The big obstacle when we started was just proving this. I mean no one wanted to put money toward sponsoring deaf Kenyans through college because no one had set a precedent of this being a successful program. So the big thing was proving that this model was successful -- sponsoring deaf people through college, sending deaf people overseas, showing that this was having a huge impact despite really limited resources. The cost for a Kenyan to get an entire college degree, room and board, books, full time interpreters, everything and our costs to administer and send wires, hire staff, etc. amounts to $2,500, and life time mentoring. The Kenyan government is going to hire these graduates and they're going to mentor over a 100 kids, year after year. So, we've proven the model is successful and our deaf Kenyans are doing great in college, they're surpassing the hearing people because they're studying all the time. So that was the first big obstacle. Now we're in three different countries, we have four part-time staff, I'm the only full-time person, and the biggest obstacle for us is to make that jump. It's really a tough jump to go from a start up nonprofit to a sustainable nonprofit.

Q. You said you're members of both the World Federation of the Deaf and the National Association for the Deaf, what is their reaction? Are they out there beating the drums for you?

A. Well, the thing is everyone's in the same game. Everyone has limited resources, and everyone's scrambling to do what they can do in their own area. They accepted us as members. I just had a meeting with the National Association of the Deaf and they love what we're doing. They're putting us in their news and getting the word out, but besides that these organizations are still trying to stay together.

Underserved populations

Q. Are they doing referrals, do they get a lot of questions from deaf organizations around the world and then do they refer them to you?

A. We get referrals from all over, and it's even hard to tell where they come from. There are 15 countries who have requested us, formal requests, to have us start the cycle of success, work with their deaf community, and so forth, but we just had to tell everybody to wait, that's a really hard part of this job. I just went through Central America, and the need is unbelievable. There's huge populations of deaf people that are totally underserved. Just an example in Central American countries, you have about half a million deaf people in many of the countries, but only 300 deaf people are in school. I mean, this is an incredible human rights issue for this population. With very little resources combined with empowering support, these people could be an incredible resource to their countries.