At just 17, Steve Crump lost his hearing. Little by little, he began hearing less and less – until eventually, he was surrounded by silence. Though his reality had changed, he continued pushing his career forward amongst the hearing world. But one day, he was confronting by something startling: D/deaf children were nearly three times more likely to be abused, exploited and violated – and no one was listening.
From that moment on, Crump decided to commit everything he had to protecting deaf children. He founded DeafKidz International to highlight the endemic rates of violence among D/deaf children, working with organisations in South Africa, Jamaica and beyond to combat such violence across the world. Today, DeafKidz is a partner and grantee of the End Violence Partnership, and a recipient of our 2020 Safe Online funding round.
Read on to learn more about the challenges D/deaf children face, and how Crump and DeafKidz International are working to end them.
1. Can you tell me about your experience growing up deaf – and how those experiences led you to found DeafKidz?
I lost my hearing when I was 17 years old. It was progressive hearing loss, and over time, I began to realize I couldn’t hear as well as I once could. Over the next few years, that hearing loss increased – and today, if I take out my hearing aids, I can’t hear a sound.
That initial hearing loss led to a sort of withdrawal – if you can’t hear, you can’t engage, and you start removing yourself from people, conversations, and activities because you’re not quite sure what’s going on. I started getting things wrong in terms of communication and conversation, and sometimes, it led to ridicule. As I became less able to hear my voice, I didn’t know how loud I was speaking, or if I was articulating and enunciating my words properly.
Rather than opening up about what I was feeling, I began to step back, something that I know now is very common for people who lose their hearing. Deafness marginalizes and isolates you; it cuts you off from those around you. At times, it is very challenging and difficult.
Eventually, though, I began to adjust. I began using hearing aids – and different strategies – to ensure I could communicate with others and understand the world around me. I also began to immerse myself in the deaf world, learning the cultural intricacies and richness of that community. And, I began learning sign language to supplement my hearing. When I look back now, I’m proud of the way I adjusted to being deaf, and how I continued to push forward despite my hearing loss.
After I graduated from university, I began working in the humanitarian world, though it was more by accident than by design. In the early days of my career, I worked with the Red Cross as a humanitarian aid worker and then I moved to the Mines Advisory Group where I focused on programmes that cleared land mines in conflict and post-conflict communities.
I began to travel across the world – to Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Angola, Cambodia, Laos and more – and time and again, I kept thinking to myself: no one is thinking about deafness. I barely saw or experienced the deaf community in that work, though I knew that they were there.
Eventually, I was asked to join the board of War Child, and in that role, I was invited to provide input on the organisation’s governance and strategy. Finally, I had the chance to raise the challenges being faced by deaf children – and almost immediately, the chief executive officer told me about a case in Sub-Saharan Africa, where deaf children in schools were being abused – and raped – by militias, with no way to tell anyone about what had happened to them. What do we do about that, he asked me, when we have no way of communicating with these children, and they have no way of communicating with us?
I realized that across the world, deaf children were being abused, violated and exploited on a massive scale – and unlike other children, many of these kids had no way to communicate, or tell their families what was happening to them.
Even worse, many of these children’s parents had no idea what was wrong with them, and assumed they couldn’t understand due to brain damage or a lack of mental capacity. Because of that, these children were subject to the mercies of anyone. And who was working to help these children? No one. Once I started digging, I learned even more: deaf children were being abandoned, tied up to a tree and left alone, and never taught how to communicate – or really, how to even interact – with anyone around them. Their parents didn’t understand how to speak to them, and as a result, the children didn’t understand how to speak to the parents.
Imagine growing up and not knowing how to speak, how to interact, how to communicate – how to engage with anyone around you. It's no surprise that deaf children are three times more likely to be abused than hearing children – but still, there is a massive gap in the safeguarding and protection of this population. This is even worse in low-resource settings, where rates of deafness can be really high – and as many as two in 10 children are experiencing some form of deafness, from slight to profound. And much of that deafness is preventable, whether its from disease, infection, complications in child birth, or other causes.
I began to realize that this was an endemic of abuse that desperately had to be addressed. While at the time, I couldn’t do much to help those deaf children being abused in that Sub-Saharan African school, I committed to one day being able to do something to make a difference.
Steve Crump advocates for the need for deaf children to be safe at the World Health Organisation’s World Hearing Forum in Geneva.
How did DeafKidz evolve from an idea into reality?
The first thing I needed was evidence. I decided to start in South Africa, a place I had worked previously, and sent a small proposal to Comic Relief. The proposal was to document the abuse of deaf children and teenagers in that country – and to do so, we talked to kids, young people, teachers of the deaf, social welfare professionals, and many others.
After four months of research, our hypothesis was confirmed: abuse and exploitation of deaf children in South Africa was widespread. After we completed that research, we went back to Comic Relief with another idea – this time, for a pilot project in Jamaica and South Africa. Comic Relief was doing incredible work, but so little of it was accessible to deaf children or people. They understood this and wanted to make a change. After all, deafness is the third largest disability globally – but it is one of the most under-resourced.
Together, we aimed to do three things. The first: we wanted to ensure deaf children and young people knew that it was okay to be deaf, and that wasn’t a reason for them to be abused. This is much harder than you’d think, as so many deaf children – no matter where they live – are seen in many societies as worthless. In some communities, children grow up believing that they’re disabled because they did something wrong in a past life, and because of that, it doesn’t matter if they’re beaten up, or tied to a pole all day, or sexually abused.
On top of that, so many deaf children don’t have access to the education and language skills that they need to communicate. For this reason, many deaf adults have the reading levels of an 8-year-old. If you don’t have access to good education, you won’t be able to communicate – and if you cannot communicate, you cannot disclose what is happening to you.
Second, we wanted to develop a parenting programme, one that helped parents interact – and communicate – with their deaf children, and network with parents of other deaf kids. Having a deaf child can be incredibly difficult for parents, especially those without the understanding of how to communicate with them. There are also entrenched attitudes about disability that need to be broken down, and something that needs to be worked on – directly with parents – over time.
Steve Crump consults with local partners Pakistan to design of DeafKidz' UK Government-funded Signing Safe Futures Pakistan programme.
The third thing we wanted to do was to work with criminal justice agencies to help them persecute cases of violence and abuse against deaf children, and to help these agencies work with a child on disclosing abuse if they cannot speak up in the usual way. In many settings, parents and communities may not know that a child is deaf – and because of that, the child won’t be able to access the support they need to learn to communicate. Not having access to education, language, and vocabulary means children won’t have the means to articulate what has happened to them, or understand that what did happen to them was wrong.
From those beginnings, DeafKidz has grown tremendously. Over the last seven years, we’ve worked in Zimbabwe, Malawi, India, Pakistan and other countries across the world, doing our part to try to make deaf children safer.
Today, we’re doing what we can to also target partners – like End Violence – working at-scale. Often, our conversations will begin like this: how can a deaf child access your programmes? We can help you make your work more accessible. It's going to be a 100-year job, and there are so many issues to address. If you look at the history of human civilization, abuse has always been there. But we are doing everything we can to change that, especially for those most at-risk.
Last year, DeafKidz received a grant from the End Violence Partnership that focuses on keeping deaf children safe online. Why is this dimension of child protection important for children – especially those who are deaf?
Our relationship with the End Violence Partnership began when we had several meetings together in London and New York. I advocated that the Partnership needed to include the needs of deaf children into their strategy, and they needed to take their challenges into account. I relayed that given the high rates of abuse deaf children face, it was critical for the partnership to include the needs of deaf children in its mission – and I wouldn’t stop pushing for it until they did.
That being said, I was delighted when DeafKidz received a grant from End Violence to develop a series of games to increase deaf children’s safety online. We know that 50 per cent of deaf children are sexually abused before adulthood, compared to 25 per cent of hearing girls and 10 per cent of hearing boys. Pair that with the fact that at any one time, 750,000 individuals are estimated to be looking to connect with children for sexual purposes online.
Factors such as lack of information in their first language, such as sign language, lower literacy levels and communication barriers, contribute to deaf children’s higher risk and vulnerability to abuse. At the same time, evidence indicates that children are accessing the internet at increasingly younger ages. This includes deaf children, who may not fully understand an online threat or be equipped to protect themselves against online abuse.
Deaf children are often left out of online safety education and miss out on informal learning, such as chatting with peers or overhearing information about online safety. Deaf children are also more at risk of cyberbullying, as they may misinterpret online posts or miss subtle cues of online behaviour. Exposure to online abuse can have a profound impact on the lives of deaf children as they grow older, affecting their mental health and leading to poor social and emotional development.
Because of that, we are using funding from the End Violence Partnership to create DeafKidz Defenders, an early intervention tool in the form of accessible digital educational games. It aims to be interactive and fun while educating young deaf children aged 6–10 about the dangers of online abuse and practical steps to stay safe, thus reducing their risk of – and vulnerability to – online abuse and exploitation.
Utilising a visual medium to appeal specifically to deaf children, the games incorporate strong deaf characters with clear expressions, gestures, actions and minimal text supported with sign language translation videos. These digital educational games will promote learning among young deaf children, increasing their knowledge of online safety skills, rights and reporting mechanisms.
Deaf children in Jamaica play as part in a DeafKidz and Comic Relief programme, which worked to ensure deaf children – and particularly girls – were able to keep themselves safe from harm.
What have you been most proud of in your work over the last seven years?
There are so many children, teens and adults that come to mind when I try to answer this question. I see a child and a parent in Pakistan, a family in South Africa, children in India… there are so many children who I can think of and know that now, because of our programming, they are safer.
One example of this comes from a programme in Jamaica. We were training a group of young deaf women to become coaches and mentors to deaf girls in their community, and it became very clear early on that one of those women was in an extremely abusive relationship. As she went through the programme, that woman realized not only that what she was experiencing was unsafe – but that what she was experiencing was unacceptable.
She started telling the other coaches, through sign language, what was happening to her. Eventually, she took the very powerful decision to leave her husband. If you can empower someone to walk away from hate, destruction and abuse, you know you have done something right.
My bottom line is that no deaf child should scream in sign language.
I’m also proud of our partnership with End Violence. A global movement is prepared to work with us – a tiny organisation – to deliver systemic, large-scale change, one that will cause a ripple effect for the lives of deaf children across the world. I’m proud that at such an early stage in our history, we’ve been able to partner with organizations that have a global reach – and ones that will give us leverage way above what we had before. I see these relationships as long-term. And I see them as key to ensuring deaf people are included – and protected – in countries everywhere.
My bottom line is that no deaf child should scream in sign language. They should never be alone, and never experience the agony of abuse. Together, we are doing something about that.
ABOUT END VIOLENCE CHAMPIONS
As part of the Together to #ENDviolence global campaign, we are celebrating these individuals and the change they are helping to create. Through Q&A-style interviews, you will learn from practitioners, activists, researchers, policymakers and children about their successes, their challenges, and what they think is needed to end violence for good. Every month, we will feature someone working on this challenge from a different part of the world, shedding light on their impact and the efforts of their affiliated organisation, company or institution.
Do you know someone who should be featured as an End Violence Champion? Nominate them here!