The free sign language classes are held at city cafes on Saturdays Image Credit: Supplied

ABU DHABI: A young Emirati woman in Abu Dhabi is helping people suffering from speech and hearing disabilities overcome the communication barrier by offering them free sign language classes.

Maha Al Mohairbi, 23, said her non-profit initiative called Handspeakers is inspired by popular American television series Switched At Birth, which is regarded as the first mainstream TV show to have multiple deaf and hard-of-hearing series regulars and scenes shot entirely in American Sign Language (ASL).

Speak with hands

“At Handspeakers we teach people to speak with their hands. We have got about 10 trained teachers who hold free sign language sessions every Saturday,” said Mohairbi.

“They last for about an hour and a half and are mostly held in cafes. We also post live Instagram videos of our sessions to reach out to as many people as possible.

“The idea is to provide opportunities to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals and also promote public awareness about the challenges faced by them,“ she said. As part of its goal to encourage dialogue and break barriers Handspeakers also participated in the recently concluded Shaikh Zayed Festival in Al Wathba.

“The response was very encouraging. A lot of people approached us wanting to learn the sign language so that they could communicate with their loved ones who are deaf or hearing impaired.”

Case studies

Among the many who’ve benefited from the barely one-year-old initiative is Abu Dhabi-based Algerian expat Anissa Oukadei. Thanks to Handspeakers, the 63-year-old woman can now interact with her 23-year-old daughter who suffers from Down Syndrome.

“For years I struggled to communicate with Somaya. Not any more. We enrolled for these wonderful expressive language classes and now I can easily converse with my daughter. Seeing me, my other two children and grandchildren are planning to enroll at Handspeakers,” she said.

Emirati Zainab Al Mehairbi, 34, said she was forced to learn sign language after temporarily losing her voice due to a bad case of laryngitis.

“There was a time when I couldn’t speak for three weeks. I had to use hand gestures to ask for even the most basic things. That is when I realised the importance of learning sign language and signed up for free classes at Handspeakers,” she said.

The mother of Emirati teen Sariea Mubarak Saeed Al Mansoori who suffers from hearing impairment said her daughter has become more confident since joining Handspeakers.

“She goes to a mainstream school and was struggling to adjust because of her condition, but now her life has changed dramatically and she has made several friends in school.

Mohairbi said: “The deaf and dumb are a neglected community in the UAE. There is so much they want to express but are unable to do so as there is no common language they can speak. Our aim is to empower them with sign languages.”