Through a program from DW Akademie’s partner Penplusbytes, students with hearing impairments are learning to think critically about the information they receive and share online.
For the hearing impaired in Ghana, the internet has revolutionized the opportunities they have to communicate. Yet this new accessibility is also fraught with dangers that range from disinformation to bullying.
Penplusbytes, a Ghanaian organization that specializes in media and information literacy (MIL), has been looking to develop programs for the hearing impaired and other segments of society they have not previously engaged with. At the same time, Dr. Kodwo Boateng, a senior lecturer at the Ghana Institute of Journalism and the co-director of the House of Grace School for the Deaf, was also considering an MIL program for his students.
"There is an urgent need for training in digital protection and security for these marginalized segments of society," Boateng explained.
Boateng and Penplusbytes decided to collaborate on a set of two pilot MIL training workshops for hearing-impaired students, aged 17 to 24, the first at House of Grace School for the Deaf and the second at Mampong Demonstration School. MIL, a field of action for DW Akademie, teaches consumers of media to think critically about media content by evaluating information and checking sources. These skills are of particular importance for younger people in Ghana, who spend a significant amount of time online.
These skills might be even more essential for hearing-impaired students, because of the amount of their social life that takes place online and, as Boateng noted, "the students are addicted to their phones."
Dr. Kodwo Boateng (left) relied on House of Grace school headmaster Frederick Anderson to translate the MIL material for the students
Hearing-impaired students often struggle to communicate with the world around them, so phones can be a lifeline connecting them to their environment. Yet just like many hearing students their age, the senior high students at House of Grace were not aware of the basic tenets of internet safety.
In the first workshop, all 11 students were on social media yet none used two-factor verification to secure their accounts. Many had fallen for phishing schemes or had suffered from online bullying, trolling and even leaked personal photos.
A digital gender divide also became apparent at House of Grace. Within the first session, male participants all reported having smart phones while the females did not.
Precious Ankomah, the program manager for Penplusbytes, said this was not uncommon in Ghana. "There is a perception about girls being exposed online, that they cannot protect themselves," she pointed out. "Yet they are able to protect themselves and should be trained and ready to use the digital space."
To the trainers' surprise, most of the students had not heard of TikTok, a social media platform otherwise popular among young Ghanaians.
"In fact, they had to decide on a new sign for TikTok," explained Boateng.
During their training, the students designated TikTok's sign to be the letter "T", combined with the sign for video. The signs for Instagram (the right little finger moving back and forth in the palm of the left hand as if one is scrolling) and Twitter (a thumb and index finger next to the mouth, opening and closing to mimic a bird's beak) are already in use.
Students learned how to use hashtags to express their opinions, from environmental issues to deaf rights to basketball
After completing a second workshop at Mampong Demonstration School the following weekend, Ankomah and Boateng considered the trainings a success. Responses from students at both schools were positive.
"I've learned how to protect myself online," Stella, a House of Grace student, responded. "I know how to look after myself, my information, the news I hear and how I choose to use information."
While learning opportunities for the hearing impaired throughout Ghana have increased in recent years, they are still limited. The House of Grace School for the Deaf is currently the only private senior high school and is almost entirely funded through private donations from abroad. Mampong Demonstration School is the only public school in the country that offers higher secondary education for deaf students.
Boateng explained that deaf people are usually trained in handicrafts, so they finish school at the junior high level, although today some do go to university.
"Kids now are more ambitious but," he admitted, "there are just not enough opportunities."
To accommodate for this, Boateng and the Penplusbytes team are setting their sights on more MIL trainings – this time for students at the junior high level (12 to 16 years old). This way more students with hearing impairments will acquire the skills to think critically and click wisely.
Penplusbytes is a non-profit organization, established in 2001. It is working with DW Akademie to spread media and information literacy (MIL) in Ghana to encourage critical thinking and more security in digital spaces.