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When the racial segregation of Apartheid lifted in 1994, South Africa underwent a transformation. Unfortunately, says general studies instructor Murdock Henderson, this left the deaf community orphaned. “I think with the new government, priorities shifted,” said Dr. Henderson. “Somehow, serving those with disabilities was lost through that process.”
Henderson applied for a Fulbright fellowship to help address some of the problems facing deaf South Africans, and he will begin his year of work this July.
The challenges facing deaf and hard of people in South Africa is immense. Census numbers indicate more than 1.2 million people with varying degrees of significant hearing loss in the country. Henderson estimates between 500,000 and 800,000 of those use sign language, and they communicate in a wide spectrum of dialects, including South African Sign Language and signed versions of spoken Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, and other languages.
Many deaf individuals face bleak childhoods. Henderson says deaf children are subject to “rampant abuse” physically, psychologically, and sexually. Many have learning disabilities or behavioral issues, he said.
Henderson first traveled to South Africa in 2007, to see his wife’s homeland and learn more about the deaf community. Shortly after, he became involved with the National Institute for the Deaf (NID), and founded the Intaba Institute. Intaba’s mission is to improve the lives of deaf South Africans, and Henderson serves as its chief executive officer. “Intaba” is the term for mountain in several African dialects.
Henderson believes a continued relationship with Gallaudet will prove integral to his work in tackling the challenges facing South Africa’s deaf community. Gallaudet students could come to the Intaba Institute for training in advocacy and international development, and serve as role models for the children. For adults looking for higher education opportunities, online courses can reach out to South Africans who cannot travel to the U.S.
Identifying problems, building solutions
That first trip to South Africa nearly three years ago opened Henderson’s eyes. “They had some organized agencies working with deaf people and I was very curious,” he recalled. “Then I realized that they were quite different than those here in America. I realized there was so much more that could be done.”
In 2009, NID invited Henderson to serve as its coordinator of mental health services. As he completed his duties remotely, while teaching at Johns Hopkins University and Gallaudet, he discovered there were many more problems to address. At the encouragement of Dr. Alan Green, a colleague at Johns Hopkins, Henderson applied for a Fulbright fellowship. Now he will have the chance to work in the country as a visiting Fulbright scholar in the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University.
Henderson’s Fulbright project is multi-pronged. He plans first to gather as much information as he can about the experiences of deaf and hard of hearing people in Western Cape and the greater region. He wants to learn from community stakeholders what their perceptions are of child safety; discern how each of these parties addresses issues like physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; and identify what the community service gaps are for deaf or hard of hearing people, especially children, in the areas of crisis management and mental health.
Thanks to preliminary research, Henderson already envisions a bricks-and-mortar answer to the problems and gaps in service related to deaf South Africans. He has outlined these ideas in his paper, “The Need for Mental Health Services Among the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deafblind in South Africa.” In the next three to five years, he sees the creation of a pediatric mental health program, a training program for aspiring students who want to specialize in mental health and counseling professions, and a school for challenged deaf children in Western Cape on the NID campus. He also hopes to create a community mental health center for people of all ages specializing in consultation on taboo topics such as HIV/AIDS, rape, substance abuse, and depression.
With experience and strong support from his partners, Henderson is hopeful for positive results. He draws on a strong educational and professional background, including a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from Wheaton College in Illinois, clinical training at the Harvard Medical School, and years of teaching, research, and work in the mental health field. Soon, he will add his Fulbright research and community interaction experience to his profile.
Overall, Henderson hopes to contribute to another shift for the deaf community of South Africa–this time, toward a model of success and hope. And he wants to bring Kendall Green along. “I look forward to building a bridge between Gallaudet and our developing deaf communities overseas,” Henderson said, “starting with South Africa.”
–Rhea Yablon Kennedy
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