Rev. Fr Kouamé René Dan Yao: the Priest for the hearing impaired

His experience over a decade ago in faraway Liberia where he felt useless in a school for the deaf compelled the then seminarian and now an ordained priest with the Roman Catholic Church, to learn sign language.

As a seminarian doing his pastoral works in Liberia, Rev. Fr Kouamé René Dan Yao’s Parish Priest sent him and his colleague to go and teach catechism to students of the school for the deaf.

Not even their appearance or way of life gave them the impression that the students had a hearing impairment. It was only when they started talking to them but did not receive their expected response that they realised that there was a different situation. Even then, to them, they thought the students were being disrespectful and ill-mannered.

It was later that one of the teachers drew their attention to the fact that they could not hear what they were saying. because of impairment. Priest with the Society of African Missionaries (SMA), told this reporter that the experience jolted them to reality, “We asked ourselves how we are going to teach these students if we cannot communicate with them?

“We tried to engage them but realised how useless we were to them and it then dawned on us that we needed to learn their language to communicate effectively with them,” he recounted.

That encounter, he explained, ignited in him the zeal to learn the sign language and to devote himself to their cause. After acquiring the basic skills in sign language, Father René went to Nairobi-Kenya for further studies where he upgraded his knowledge in sign language at the Kenya Sign Language for Pastoral Ministry as part of his four years of theological studies.

This study was to enable him to communicate properly with the deaf population that had been neglected in almost all endeavours of public life.

St Martin Deaf Ministry
Since the year 2020, Fr. René, as he is widely known, has been running the St Martin Deaf Ministry (SMDM) which was initially set up to attend to the spiritual needs of those with hearing impairment within the Catholic Church but has now been opened to others outside the church.

Fr Rene presenting a certificate to a graduate from the dressmaking cohort at the JCTC

Fr Rene presenting a certificate to a graduate from the dressmaking cohort at the JCTC

Aside attending to the spiritual needs of its members, the ministry also provides skills training and job opportunities for those with such challenges to enable them to contribute their quota to the development of the country and also be self-reliant.

He said there was this misconception by society that every person with that challenge was a needy person and as such, needed help. “At times, they rather want to help but people would think they constantly need help and would doll out money or any other form of help,” he said.

Contrary to that misconception, he said most of them wish to be included in society and not alienated. He said even the Catholic Church was guilty of that as most of them who were baptised were given the sacraments as tokenism and not taken through the teachings and doctrines of the church as they would for other people.

Even though the desire to start the ministry was borne right after his ordination in 2018, he said it was not until 2020 that he had the green light to start.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Accra Archdiocese of the Catholic Church, Most Rev. John Bonaventure Kwofie, sought his assistance to interpret the Mass in the Ghanaian sign language and this was broadcast on the media.

He said this caught on with a lot of people and made him a bit popular, “and that was the genesis of the St Martin Deaf Ministry.”

Fr René, who is also the Executive Director of the Job Creation and Training Centre for the Deaf (JCTC) located at Asuoyeboa in the Kwadaso Municipality, called for the total inclusion of people with hearing impairment into the society.

One of the teachers taking the apprentices through a lesson

One of the teachers taking the apprentices through a lesson

To do that, he said there was the need for all to learn the sign language and this should be part of the country’s educational curricula. He said the sign language should be made compulsory to enable everyone to communicate freely with the hearing impaired.

This point was corroborated by a Human Rights Due Diligence Consultant, Suzan Yemidi, who also had a similar experience when she was to provide counselling service to a breast cancer patient only to realise the person was deaf.

“We had to wait for someone from the Akropong School for the Deaf to come to Accra to interpret my message to the lady and I believe if we all learn and understand the sign language, it would go a long way to make communication between us and the deaf easier,” she stated.

Skills training
JCTC was set up by SOKPO, a Dutch non-governmental organisation to provide skills training for the deaf to make them self-reliant. Some of the skills training offered by the centre include dressmaking, hairdressing, repair of computers and laptops, catering and carpentry.

A hearing impaired computer technician at his workstation

A hearing impaired computer technician at his workstation

Fr René explained that majority of the hearing impaired were unable to progress after leaving school and that there was a need to create avenues for those willing to acquire skills that would make them useful to society.

He said the then director of the Jamasi School for Deaf in the Ashanti Region offered that support to them. He said it took a maximum of three years for one to pass out from the training after which the centre tried to set them up with the equipment and tools they would need to begin their life.

“It is our hope and wish that society would come to understand and appreciate the hearing impaired and make them part of the society,” he said.

Who is Fr. René?
Born in Cote d’Ivoire in 1984, Rev. Fr Yao joined the Society of African Missions in 2008. He professed his first vow in 2012 and was ordained a priest in 2018.He founded the St Martin Deaf Ministry in 2020 and has since 2023, served as the Executive Director of the Job Creation and Training Centre for the Deaf.


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