IMPACT
11/13/2014 12:33 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2014

This Teen Never Learned To Communicate. One Sign Language Class Transformed Him

Patrick Otema was born deaf. The 15-year-old is said to live in a remote area of Uganda, and with no access to schools for the deaf he’s never learned sign language and has thus never been able to have a complex conversation with anyone.

Most of Patrick’s day is spent alone in his hut, isolated from the world.

“Patrick’s fate is not unusual,” said journalist Kiki King in this video about the teen’s life. “A majority of deaf people in Sub-Saharan Africa have never been taught sign language. Unable to communicate with others, they’re trapped in their own minds.”

But that reality is slowly shifting — at least for some.

The video about Patrick (subtitled version here) is a clip from a documentary by British broadcaster Channel 4 about how sign language is improving the lives of children and adults who are deaf in Uganda.

In it, Patrick is pictured attending his very first sign language class, said to have been organized by the Uganda National Association for the Deaf, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering individuals with hearing loss.

Though initially portrayed in the video as being reserved and detached, Patrick seems to come alive during the lesson, engaging with the material and smiling widely as he tries out the new signs.

Observing from the side of the classroom, journalist Kiki King said, “Patrick’s transformation is amazing. It’s almost impossible to believe it’s the same boy we met yesterday.”

(Watch Patrick's first sign language lesson in the video above. We'd recommend watching the clip from start to finish. Also, grab a tissue.)

In a series of posts on Reddit Wednesday, a user who identified himself as Daniel Bogado, the director of the Channel 4 documentary, said that Patrick is still enrolled in the sign language course, and has “learned a lot and is doing very well.”

According to 2012 estimates released by the World Health Organization, Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of disabling hearing loss in children.

“The rate of deaf people in Uganda is twice that of a developed country like the U.K.,” Bogado wrote on Reddit. “That's because a very large number of people become deaf after contracting endemic diseases like measles, mumps or malaria.”

Many of these individuals, however, do not have access to sign language education.

“There's also [a] huge amount of stigma surrounding deafness, which is considered a curse,” Bogado said.

But he added that organizations like Uganda National Association for the Deaf and Sign Health UK are working hard to change this.

"We [went] to other schools and the conversation skills of deaf children after being there only a month or two are pretty spectacular," Bogado said. "It's like they have been thirsting for a way to communicate their whole lives and when it's presented for them they embrace it with a passion -- it really opens up their personalities as well, from shy and withdrawn, to smiling and full of confidence -- it's something truly moving and humbling to witness."

For more on Patrick’s story and sign language education in Uganda, watch the full Channel 4 documentary, "Unreported World: 15 and Learning to Speak,” which will be available worldwide on YouTube on November 22.

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