Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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Deaf Volunteers for the Deaf Developing World

By M. Miles (m99miles@hotmail.com)

The Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol, initiated a new dialogue in November 2000 by bringing together people active in Deaf Studies and people involved in disability-related work in developing countries, for a conference on Deafness and Development. Project reports on educational initiatives and partnerships in Russia, Brazil and Zimbabwe were given by Susan Gregory and Sheila Wirz from the Universities of Birmingham and London, and the activities of Deaf Initiatives and Christoffel Blindenmission were described by Doreen Woodford and Sian Tesni. Yet the really innovative feature of the meeting was to have two British deaf presenters, Simeon Hart and Geraldine Dunlop, reporting on their work with deaf people in the Philippines and Southern India.

Simeon Hart has served for three years with the British organisation Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) , working with deaf counterparts in various parts of the Philippines to strengthen their organisational management capacity, self-representation and national sporting activities, and also with teachers to improve deaf children's learning opportunities. He informed the meeting that VSO had sent some 27,000 volunteers abroad since it began in 1958, but among them only five had been deaf. This was beginning to change. The developing world of hearing people has had plenty of hearing volunteers, and Hart now appeals for "Deaf Volunteers for the Deaf Developing World".

The appeal was confirmed by Geoff Brown, VSO's Overseas Training Manager. Brown also noted that the average age of volunteers has reached 35 years, but VSO is now trying to encourage younger people to make their input of skills, energy and enthusiasm. (The latter was in fact the original idea of VSO founder Alec Dickson, before 'professionalisation' set in during the 1970s). For work with Deaf organisations in economically weaker countries, the obvious volunteers to send would be deaf people with appropriate skills and initiative, willing to learn the local sign Language and to share their experience and initiative with local counterparts. He confirmed that VSO is by no means confined to British volunteers. Quite a number have been sent from other countries, with the Netherlands and Canada strongly represented.

Recent VSO reports and magazines have given some coverage to deafness, featuring deaf Canadian Beverley Buchanan's work developing teaching materials in Thailand between 1995 and 1998 and also her leadership training courses in Malaysia and Singapore. Another article discusses deaf Nepalis and the codification of Nepali Sign Language with American Peace Corps assistance.

Discussion among the 60+ participants (approximately 50-50 deaf and hearing) touched on issues of communication in the many countries where Sign has yet to gain any official recognition as a minority language. The language capacities of deaf people were pointed out by Geoff Brown, who had seen the new batch of volunteers doing their standard eight weeks of language study in the Philippines. While the hearing volunteers had been struggling with the basics of Tagalog, he had noticed Simeon Hart making far quicker progress in learning FSL, the Filipine Sign Language.

Deaf Tamil Ambitions
Difficulties of language and culture were given more prominence by Geraldine Dunlop while discussing her ten years of work at Nambikkai ('Hope') in the far south of Tamil Nadu, India. The regional language, Tamil, has been a stiff entrance test since the earliest european traders and missionaries arrived several hundred years ago. Tamil speakers continue in the long battle to retain a language and culture that has a similar antiquity to the Sanskrit base of the Hindi-speakers dominant in North India. But Tamil Sign is still widely seen by the hearing world as no more than 'mimicking'. Oral methods still predominate in the great majority of schools for deaf children, with some Sign also in use but having 'unofficial' status.

Deaf young people brought up in the prevailing environment of 'tolerant contempt' naturally tend to lack social skills and self-confidence. Much of what Nambikkai aims to do is to provide appropriate education and training in employment skills for older boys and girls, but also to develop talents and foster ambition. According to Dunlop, Tamil families with deaf children have low expectations and make it easy for young deaf people to stay at home doing far less than they might. Nambikkai challenges any such apathy, and tries to equip deaf young people with skills to enable them to work successfully in the hearing world. The difficulties of doing so are far greater for young deaf women. The strong cultural expectation is that they should get married, but families often find a match hard to arrange for deaf young women, and their confidence soon ebbs away.

Dunlop's account of Nambikkai activities in fact echoes some reports from the earlier years of the Florence Swainson deaf school at Palankottai, South India. In 1931, a visitor was pleased with the extra-curricular activities of the deaf children and young people. The Guides and Bluebirds (= Brownies) were active, and
"the Patrol Leaders have shewn powers of leadership and organization hardly to be expected from deaf girls. ... These deaf girls display much keenness in all branches of Guiding, tracking, bird lore, etc. ... the Rangers are beginning Child Nursing and First Aid. They hope to run a small dispensary to which the poor people from the neighbouring village can come for simple treatment."
The headmistress of the early 1930s, Elizabeth Morgan, wrote about one of her more able deaf girls, Sanmoshavadivoo, who returned home during the hot season vacation and found that she and her younger brother (also at the deaf school) were the only people in the village who could read and write. She began teaching some of the village girls to read, and when it was time for her to return to school they begged her to stay and to continue teaching them. [Historical references appear at http://www.sign-lang.uni-hamburg.de/bibweb/miles/miles.html]

So what has changed in 70 years, for deaf young people in Tamil Nadu? Not enough, one might well conclude, for the great majority. Yet if the pace is desperately slow, at least now the difficult transitional period from youth to the adult world is being facilitated by deaf adults providing role models and encouraging the youngsters to tackle bigger challenges and carve out a path for themselves.

A book of proceedings and further relevant material is anticipated from Deafness & Development conference organisers Alison Callaway, Linda Day and Mary Griggs, as well as some additional activities to tackle the issues raised.

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