• Muleka felt his hearing-impaired sister was excluded and struggled to keep in touch
• He started channel with sign language, created app that links society to interpreters
Media owner Luke Muleka's desire was to come up with an entertaining solution for his hearing-impaired sister, Magdalene Muleka, to enjoy watching TV as much as he did. This desire gave birth to two innovative ideas.
The first was a TV station that served the needs of persons living with disability. The second is an app that will allow the society at large to communicate and interact with the hearing impaired with ease.
Muleka, 39, the founder and managing director of Signs Media Kenya Limited, deeply wanted to connect with his sister and communicate with her. The family lived in Busia, though Muleka would later move to Nairobi in 2001 to study accounting at Strathmore College.
"My sister, the one I follow, was deaf and epileptic. We were close growing up, I was her interpreter," he told the Star.
They separated when she went to a different school, and he could not communicate with her anymore because she acquired the official Kenyan sign language, while he was still at the rudimentary stage of signing.
"Then I went to high school. Communication is a key component of any relationship, and so ours deteriorated."
What worried him was that every time they would sit and watch TV, she could not enjoy anything on the screen because the language was not accommodating.
"In 2015, when sign language was introduced on TV, it was only on the news. But my interest was: how do I get her entertained?" Muleka said.
By then, he had started working as a banker in Nairobi. He got a team of deaf youth at a church he was attending.
He had a musical background in school as a choir member. He started writing songs for the youth and they would sing. Then he started recording videos of them singing, which he edited for fun.
He realised this was something he could cascade. He started looking for a TV station that would give him an opportunity to showcase it, even if for 30 minutes.
None agreed because there was no business model. So he went to the Communication Authority of Kenya to complain, and they told him they could not enforce anything because that is the media house's business model.
"They told me if I am interested, they will give me a channel. I was like wow, I don't know anything to do with TV," he said.
"I got all the documents they needed. Eventually, I got a licence in 2017, February, and we started broadcasting."
GONE TOO SOON
Unfortunately, his sister did not get to watch and enjoy the shows on the TV station.
"My sister was so excited when she learnt I had managed to start a TV station that communicates directly to people with disabilities. But I was only broadcasting in 14 counties," Muleka said.
"This December, we're thinking of rolling it out countrywide, but she died last year December before she could get to see that."
However, an idea for an innovative app was born out of this effort.
Muleka noticed that the deaf people who wanted to work with the channel were having challenges in terms of education, not having attained it to college level. Communication mediums at this level (sign language interpretation, that is) are few.
Also, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the government set regulations, Muleka realised the people living with disability were not considered.
It did not recognise matters like sanitising assistive devices for persons with wheelchairs and crutches, which left them susceptible to infection.
For the visually impaired, the advice to cough into the elbow was also not helpful. This is because the visually impaired walk holding their guides on the elbow.
"So we had to redirect them that you can hold a person and also keep within the stipulated radius between the person you are holding and yourself because that is what is normally prescribed," Muleka said.
It is against this backdrop that Muleka and company thought, why not come up with an application that deals with this gap and offers sign language interpretation online?
He felt it would go a long way in aiding the deaf scale the heights of development and socioeconomic status.
The result was an app called assistALL, which has been copyrighted by the Kenya Copyright Board. It was published in July on Google Play Store, primarily to assist with the Covid-19 pandemic. It is downloaded for free.
Muleka said it could come in handy if a deaf person is in isolation and they are subjected to restricted visits.
"That means an interpreter cannot access them and not all doctors know sign language. And even if the interpreter had access, he would be fully clad in PPE," he said.
"The hands are very crucial in sign language, along with the facial expression. So if you have on PPEs, it means you have really inhibited communication with the deaf person."
That is where assistALL comes into play. However, its application goes beyond health. It can be used in the education sector, legal sector in courts and police stations and even socially, when interacting with the deaf.
Muleka cited situations where a deaf person goes to buy prescribed medicine. The pharmacist might not know how to explain the difference between milk and water to the deaf person, and this service will help them out.
"Even at the police station, if they want to record a statement, it becomes difficult to be interviewed by the police because most police stations don't have interpreters or the officers can't sign to communicate," he said.
Basically, you hail an interpreter, he serves you via video call, you pay them, then the interpreter moves on to the next person available who needs the servicesLuke Muleka
HOW IT WORKS
This is the first app globally that seeks to provide the interpretation service to the deaf and to the society at large.
There are other apps that translate sign language but they are either using Artificial Intelligence or augmented reality to translate sign language; none have live interpreters on call.
assistALL is the first app of its kind that is personalised for use by both the deaf and the society that interacts with them. Its application is limitless and would help the society interact with ease with the deaf.
"Basically, we are tweaking it in the same concept as Uber, in which you hail an interpreter, he serves you via video call, you pay them, then the interpreter moves on to the next person available who needs the services," Muleka said.
The app has been calibrated to serve a doctor, parent, teacher, pharmacist and others, which includes friends and colleagues.
The app not only creates employment, it also raises esteem for the visually impaired. As the deaf get assisted, Muleka said, their status in society will rise, and the people assisting the deaf are being paid for the service.
"It is a symbiotic relationship. Interpretation is a service that is paid for, and the reason we only have four on call in the app at the moment is that they are already paid under Signs TV, but we are looking to recruit more to join in," Muleka said.
Signs TV is based at Ridgeways, Nairobi. Hit shows so far include News Crunch, Talanta Mtaani Inclusive and Sign Out Loud (a deaf comedy). Their Twitter handle is @signstvKENYA.
Edited by T Jalio
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