Perceptions of others are the most disabling aspect of being deaf or disabled. “That is why our focus at Deaf Hands at Work is to turn ‘disAbility’ into ‘thisAbility’,” says Charles Nyakurwa.
Nyakurwa is an entrepreneur with infectious enthusiasm for empowering the disabled and breaking stereotypes they face. Growing up in Zimbabwe with a deaf brother, Nyakurwa experienced the challenges of less ablebodied individuals first-hand.
“My brother Peter was always way smarter than me, but everyone could understand me,” he explains.
Statistics show that less than 1% of the South African workforce is disabled, and close to 75% of the deaf community is illiterate, but Nyakurwa is working hard to change the situation. In 2007, Nyakurwa came to South Africa to escape the political situation in Zimbabwe. A keen student, he worked as a waiter to put himself through vocational training. While achieving his degree, he was concerned with the lack of opportunities for the disabled.
“I wanted to help, because I could see how difficult it was. I wanted to start a non-profit organisation to help them, but I didn’t want to create dependence through handouts,” he says.
Nyakurwa knew that employment meant empowerment and that he could achieve a lot more than just sustenance through grants. This came to him when, in 2010, he received a text message that his brother had been accepted to college.
“I was happy, but I also wondered where my brother would work once he was finished,” he says.
Thinking about a way to combine empowering the deaf with changing ablebodied perceptions, Nyakurwa founded Deaf Hands at Work (DHW).
“DHW’s vision is to empower by creating meaningful employment for disabled tradesmen,” explains Nyakurwa, “but we are also teaching sign language and breaking down stereotypes that disabled people aren’t smart.”
With his personal savings, he was able to get together the basic tools needed for his venture, but unfortunately three months in there was a major fire and he lost almost everything. Not one to give up, Nyakurwa pushed forward, buying tools as he could.
“Then a friend told me about Unltd South Africa,” he says. “I needed some help and I thought I would take the chance with their competition.”
The chance paid off, and Deaf Hands at Work was selected as the winner of the Unltd South Africa Award. Every year, Unltd South Africa gives awards to deserving social entrepreneurs that really need help kickstarting their ventures.
“With the money I won, we could buy many of our needed tools, but the award was about much more than that to me. The amount of professional support and personal growth was amazing,” says Nyakurwa.
Besides the cash prize, winners are plugged into a community of like-minded entrepreneurs in peer groups.
“If you’re pioneering a new area, it helps to be part of a community,” he continues, “that’s what gets you through the tough times.”
In addition, Unltd South Africa also looks at the nuts and bolts of the business to help make it successful.
Tom Schutte, Programme Director at Unltd South Africa, says they were very impressed with the vision for DHW, and could see where they could help to make it a success.
“When we met Nyakurwa, he needed more than just cash,” says Schutte. “We realised there were many areas of the business that needed work. Things like financial management systems were necessary. That’s when we partnered him with Ernst & Young to help put the right processes in place.”
Nyakurwa also doesn’t like to sit still. Last year he walked a 200 km Deaf Silent Walk, where he communicated only in Sign Language in order to raise awareness of the issue.
He is also working on a variety of ways to empower other deaf entrepreneurs to create their own ventures, and even building a township-based skills training centre, for which he is currently running an IndieGoGo fundraising campaign.
For more information, visit www.dhwsa.co.za.