Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views • Issue no. 15 September-October 2002

table of contents - home page - text-only home page

Deaf Way II: Celebration of the Deaf Way of Life
By Andrea Shettle

If any isolated series of images can reveal the soul and message of the Deaf Way II conference and cultural arts festival that brought more than 9000 deaf and hearing people from more than 100 countries to Washington, D.C., United States last July, it is perhaps a brief video clip shown one morning during the conference. In this video clip, we are invited to peer through the window into a small school in rural Thailand. Inside, a teacher is gesturing and moving a paper airplane through the air, his mouth and face moving animatedly as his young charges watch with attentive interest. The video is silent and wordless, the teacher's lecture forever locked away from us - but, still, we can imagine its content. The teacher is speaking, one presumes, of the mysterious science of aerodynamics. He is telling his students, perhaps, how the shape of the paper plane in his hand affects the flow of air around it, allowing it to fly, to defy the laws of gravity that lie in wait to seize it back to the ground.

Next, we see the face of a small deaf boy sitting on a public bus that has paused, briefly, in front of the school. He is clearly watching the lesson through the windows of the bus and the windows of the school that, together, serve to quietly exclude him. He has a wistful look to him. He seems to be wishing to step into that awesome world he sees through the window. If only he could become so exalted a thing as a student. If only he could have that extraordinary privilege of being taught, of being enriched with knowledge of the world around him. But he is only a small deaf boy growing up in a developing country. An estimated 80% of deaf children in the world, or so the World Federation of the Deaf tells us, never have the chance to step into a classroom. Seeing the yearning in his face, and knowing the statistics from other sources, one wonders if this boy will ever have the fortune of being an exception to this rule. Will he someday be able to fly, or will the laws of gravity tether him forever to the ground? The bus he is on pulls away, carrying him further and further away from the school.

Now, the video shows us another man standing in front of a new classroom of raptly attentive grade-school students. He is clearly a teacher. He smiles warmly at his students, and then he does something miraculous. He starts to move his hands with the beautifully defined grace that is sign language. Since he is a native of Thailand, it is primarily other deaf Thai people who have grown up with the same system of signs who are likely to understand him. But it's not the content of his speech that matters. The real message he is giving the deaf students in his classroom is this: "I am deaf, just like you. I once was a young deaf child thirsting for knowledge, just like you. I know sign language, just like you. And now I know enough knowledge to be able to teach students just like you to be, someday, just like me. You, too, can be smart enough to be a teacher, just like me. You, too, can learn enough to someday do whatever wonderful things your heart desires in this world, just like me." The little deaf boy on the bus has grown up. He is intelligent, competent, and capable. He can do anything.

What was Deaf Way II?
Deaf people can do anything. That seemed to be the underlying message of the Deaf Way II conference and cultural arts festival, organized by Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university for deaf students in the world. The deaf and hard of hearing scholars, writers, artists, and entertainers themselves embody the message. But what, exactly, was Deaf Way II? Academics

What was this event that brought these 9675 deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, and hearing participants from 121 countries around the world to Washington, D.C., from July 8 through July 13 this year? Well, it was a little bit of everything. For professionals who work with deaf individuals and communities in a variety of professions around the world, Deaf Way II was a week-long series of plenary sessions and concurrent workshops held at the Washington Convention Center. The range of subjects covered during the conference was so broad that many participants surely felt exhausted just reading the list. The topics included: advocacy and community development; economics; education; family; health and mental health; history; language and culture; literature; recreation, leisure, and sports; sign language and interpretation; technology; and youth, just to list the 12 main categories into which all 300-plus presentations were organized. "Our goal is to exchange scholarly information, and my personal goal is for participants to have their own follow-up activities in their own countries," said Conference Committee Chair Mike Kemp, who is also chair of Gallaudet University's Department of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies. Between workshops and presentations, participants could visit dozens of exhibit tables from various businesses, organizations, schools, and universities from around the world.

Chinese "My Dream" dancers at DeafWay[d]  Arts & Culture Festival
But the more academically oriented portion of the conference, ambitious enough in its own right, was only one part of the total Deaf Way II experience. Deaf Way II was also a cultural arts festival. It was a chance for the thousands of registrants--and hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists in the Washington, D.C., area--to enjoy the talents of hundreds of deaf and hard of hearing writers, painters, stand-up comedians, mime artists, photographers, sculptors, dancers, film makers, and other artists in the various mediums of written and signed words, the movement of the body and face, and the colors and lines of paint, ceramics, metals, and film. Two- and three-dimensional art made by deaf and hard of hearing artists were on display. Plays, dances, stand-up comedy routines, and other performances by deaf and hard of hearing entertainers from around the world were on the stage every day and night throughout Deaf Way II week. Movies, sit-coms, documentaries, talk shows, and other cinematic creations by deaf film makers, writers, and actors were also shown throughout the week. An anthology of deaf literary talent was distributed to all participants.

Nightly Club
A nightly International Deaf Club gave Deaf Way II participants a chance to buy food and drinks and see live entertainment by deaf stand-up comedians, storytellers, dancers, and other entertainers. Guests were also able to sit back and enjoy a wide assortment of films playing on the multiple large screens situated throughout the club. Deaf film producers from around the world were responsible for creating all the films, often with deaf writers contributing to the script and deaf actors on the screen. If visitors at the International Deaf Club tired of passively watching other people doing things, they could dance to the beat of music cranked up so loud that even those who were totally deaf could pick up the vibrations straight from the air in their chests. Perhaps the highlight for some of the people there was the opportunity to mingle with people from other countries, learn from the collage of cultures represented, and start picking up vocabulary from the dozens different signed languages represented at the conference.

Children and Teen Camps
Parents didn't have to leave their children behind. Children aged 2 to 5 participated in arts and crafts, played bean-bag toss, listened to stories in ASL, and took walking field trips. Older children and preteens went swimming, learned about Deaf culture, developed computer literacy skills, and participated on a scavenger hunt. Teens could choose between a Culture Enrichment Camp and a Sports Camp. In the Culture Enrichment Camp, youth participated in a cookout, a scavenger hunt, skits and dances, a presentation by the World Federation of the Deaf Youth Section, and tours of museums and other sites in Washington, D.C. Those interested in athletics were able to play soccer, basketball, and volleyball. Youth were also allowed to register for Deaf Way II so they could participate in lectures, workshops, and cultural arts events.

History & Purpose of the Event
According to I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University, both the original Deaf Way that was held in 1989 and its sequel in 2002 were deliberate departures from the usual mold for conferences on deafness. In the opening speech that kicked off the July 2002 week of plenary sessions and concurrent workshops, Jordan explained how the first Deaf Way was conceived. In about 1987 a small group of people at Gallaudet talked about traditional conferences on deafness. They observed that these conferences normally put the focus "on problems, and how to help deaf people," Jordan said. "That was wrong. Deaf people have a lot to brag about, to be proud of." The people who originated the idea of the first Deaf Way wanted a conference in which ideas would be exchanged, but that would also celebrate the accomplishments of deaf people. "Even people at Gallaudet were skeptical. They thought only a few people would be interested. Some of you today were among the first 5,000 people at the first Deaf Way, which was then the largest international gathering of deaf people ever," Jordan reminded the audience at Deaf Way II. The success of the first Deaf Way, and the many demands from former participants from around the world for another Deaf Way, were the inspiration for Deaf Way II.

The most important result of the first Deaf Way was the "to-do lists" that participants developed, listing personal promises to themselves, for example, "to go home and insure that the government increases education and job opportunities, or to go back to school to get a degree and establish a business," Jordan said. "We all agreed to stay active. Each of us in our own way has helped keep the spirit of Deaf Way alive. This week, we come together again in larger numbers," Jordan noted, then urged participants at Deaf Way II to carry forth that same spirit after the new Deaf Way. "I hope we will leave with new to-do lists with new ideas. Take your pen and paper and start your list. Help make the world a better place for deaf people."

Reaching out to the Public
For the participants who traveled to the United States, and to Washington, D.C., for Deaf Way II, their experience usually began with registration on July 8. Many of the residents and visiting tourists in the Washington, D.C., area, however, got a foretaste or sampling of some of the Deaf Way II activities as much as two months in advance with the opening of a touring exhibit, "History Through Deaf Eyes," at the Smithsonian Institute. The exhibit began touring at various locations throughout the United States in 2001, starting in Hartford, Connecticut. It is scheduled in more locations through 2005. The exhibit was brought to town, however, to coincide with Deaf Way II. "Deaf Eyes" takes visitors on a trip through the history of the deaf community in the United States. That history begins with the establishment of the earliest deaf schools that allowed deaf children to meet, form a language and-after they grew into adults-the first local and national deaf organizations and deaf clubs. Text panels, photographs, and artifacts depicted 200 years of deaf history, from the early 19th century through today. Some short video clips of interviews with a diverse group of contemporary deaf individuals were also shown. During Deaf Way II, guides and interpreters able to use international sign language (Gestuno) were made available to deaf and hard of hearing guests from other countries to help them understand the exhibit.

Chinese "My Dream" dancers at DeafWay[d]  Artisitic Talent from all over the World
The "History Through Deaf Eyes" exhibit was not the only way that organizers endeavored to make the general public in the Washington, D.C., area part of the Deaf Way II experience. Starting before Deaf Way II, and continuing for several weeks afterwards, works by 68 deaf artists were on display throughout the region. Artistic talent hailed from every corner of the world: the countries represented among the artists included the United States, Colombia, Belgium, Ethiopia, Nigeria, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, the Philippines, Italy, Germany, Mexico, the Slovak Republic, Japan, South Africa, Egypt, India, Austria, Kazakhstan, and Sweden. Some of their paintings, photography, sculptures, pottery, stained glass, jewelry, wood carvings, stone carvings, and other visual art were available in various buildings on the Gallaudet University campus, while others were open to the general public at various sites including the Embassy of Sweden, the Mexican Cultural Institute, the National Zoo, the National Arboretum, and others.

Some works of art incorporated signs from the painter's native signed language or otherwise expressed the artist's feelings about being deaf, reflected pride in deaf culture and sign language, or contemplated the meaning of being deaf in a primarily hearing world. Chuck Baird from the United States, for example, created a body of works, entitled "Efflorescing," in which a pair of hands was incorporated into each painting showing the signs for "bloom" or "flower." Ixchel Solis Garcia from Mexico displayed a painting, "Three Stages of My Life," that expressed her love for Mexican Sign Language. In the picture, Garcia is shown as a child wearing a hearing aid with her mouth sewn shut and her hands bound together; next to her, the adult Garcia is raising her arms, unbound and free, able to sign. Abelardo Parra Jimenez from Colombia made a wood carving with the Deaf Way II logo surrounded by figures signing "Washington," "Gallaudet," "Deaf," "Way," and "two." Other artists drew upon other themes and inspirations, including the traditions of their own countries. Yu Xiang Ma from China, for example, displayed a traditional Chinese watercolor entitled "A Garden in Spring" with pictures of flowers and a peacock. "I express my inner excitement and peace through painting the delicate flowers and plants," she said of her work.

People in the Washington, D.C., area were also able to attend plays, dances, storytelling performances, movies, and other entertainment presented by deaf performers throughout the week at locations in Washington, D.C., and in the nearby state of Maryland. Although most performances were available only to Deaf Way II registrants, some were open to the public, sometimes for free.

First Day: Meeting the Volunteers
The first official event of Deaf Way II was the opening night performance on Monday, July 8. But before that, participants had to register. And to register, they had to navigate the overwhelmingly large Washington Convention Center and stand in long, chaotic lines. People were lost. People were confused. People wondered where the bathrooms were, or which line they were supposed to stand in, or where the end of the line was. And for help, people turned to-the Deaf Way II volunteers. Mary Ann Pugin, Chair of the Deaf Way II Volunteer and Hospitality Programs estimates that there were a total of 500 volunteers working at all levels and occupying various roles, from the 30 coordinators and assistants on the Deaf Way II Organizing Committee (DWOC), to the volunteers at the information booth, to the volunteers responsible for crowd control.

The most visible group were the 250 volunteers who wore orange shirts; these volunteers had a range of responsibilities from monitoring workshops to crowd control. Orange-clad volunteers quickly became targets for the many questions about navigating the convention center and the Deaf Way II conference as a whole. But other volunteers, despite being less visible, were just as important. These volunteers worked as backstage crew, developed printed materials, helped publicize Deaf Way II in other countries, worked as interpreters, and helped with planning, conducting activities, and solving problems.

"Most of us had little or no experience in coordinating an event of this magnitude," Pugin said. "Mistakes, or rather, unanticipated situations, were inevitable, but thanks to teamwork, quick-thinking volunteers, and patient participants, we were able to resolve challenges as they came up. There were always lines of people and the information booth volunteers, for example, had to remember a lot of details. And, inasmuch as I tried to anticipate the kinds of questions they would get, they did get a wide variety of unexpected questions and had to know how to find the answers themselves."

Pugin had profuse praise for the Deaf Way II volunteers, some of it shared by Deaf Way II participants. "They were highly complimentary and told me that the volunteers were helpful and courteous and simply everywhere! I want to mention one volunteer in particular who, I think, best exemplifies what volunteering is all about. His name is Kelvin and he's from Hawaii. He came up to me on the last day and thanked me for giving him the 'opportunity to volunteer for Deaf Way II.' Pugin also praised the volunteers who worked in the Developing Nations Support Service room, a service targeted at participants from developing nations who could not read English. "This was an extremely valuable group of volunteers. They worked many months to plan and develop the wide range of services that proved to be so beneficial to our non-English speaking participants," she said.

Deaf Literary Anthology
Soon after the Deaf Way II volunteers had successfully helped them register for the conference, participants were introduced to deaf and hard of hearing writers through a free book inside their free Deaf Way II backpack. An anthology, entitled The Deaf Way II Anthology: A Literary Collection by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers, was published by Gallaudet University Press and distributed to all participants when they registered. The anthology includes essays, short stories, poetry, and one play by 16 deaf and hard of hearing writers from the United States, Romania, Switzerland, Kenya, and Nigeria. The selection of writings was as diverse and eclectic as the offerings from visual and performing artists. For example, an actress born in Kenya, named Gaynor Young, gave an autobiographical account of her experience becoming deaf, blind, and spastic as a result of an 18-meter fall into an elevator shaft during a performance in a musical. "If you can picture an egg dropping onto the floor, that was my skull!" Young said in her autobiography, entitled "My Plunge to Fame." "It took the doctors and all of the king's horses and all the king's men a six-hour operation to get me together again." Also in the anthology, American author Christopher Jon Heuer muses about the different meanings of silence, and the helplessness his father felt toward Heuer's deafness, in the poem "The Hands of My Father": "Mine was not the kind of silence that he knew, standing in rows to be entered like a church-undisturbed beyond the brush of the leaves against his face and arms-in the fields we would not cross to meet one another. My kind of silence was flood and drought. He watched me as if God had set the locusts on him."

Deaf Performing Artists Open the Event
With registration safely out of the way, Deaf Way II participants were plunged into a celebration of deaf talent and accomplishment starting with the opening performance on the first night. A few organizers gave speeches to welcome the audience to Deaf Way II, but these were all kept extremely brief. The focus was on pleasing the audience with performances by professional deaf dancers, actors, mime artists, and other entertainers from different countries. Perhaps two of the most popular were a troop of actors from Russia and a dance group from China. The Russian group was charmingly costumed as if they were a set of wind-up toys; their movements were so realistically consistent with those of mechanical toys that some audience members almost started looking for the gears and wires. The Chinese dancers included a routine in which all the brightly costumed women stood in a row, each in front of another, to create the illusion of a single dancer with many arms unfolding like the petals of a flower.

For participants who came to Deaf Way II to be entertained by deaf performers, opening night was only the beginning. A plethora of cinematic and performing arts by deaf film makers, dancers, magicians, mime artists, story tellers, and actors was available during the week of Deaf Way II. In fact, two out-door theaters were assembled on Gallaudet University's campus specifically for Deaf Way II to allow more performances to be offered; in addition, some indoor auditoriums and theaters on campus were also used. All participants received three tickets that they could use to attend plays, mime shows, and dance shows by deaf actors and dancers. Those not content with seeing only three performances could also watch free, ticketless performances at the International Deaf Club nightly, or they could attend some of the additional performances in and around Washington, D.C., that were open to the public.

Storytellers from France, the United States, Australia, Russia, and Germany entertained Deaf Way II participants and the general public throughout the week with a wide range of tales from the humorous to the tragic. Some storytellers integrated mime, gestures, the signed language of their native country, and Gestuno to tell their stories. Some plays reflected the deaf experience, including a retelling of the Snow White tale with deaf characters. Others performances were deeply rooted in the traditions of the native country of their performers: the ANSOC dance group from Cuba, for example, presented Cuban folklore, art, and religion, as well as dances and songs from various Afro-Haitian traditions. One group from Hong Kong, the Theatre of the Silence, enacted an ancient Chinese play about two people falsely accused of murder. Their play was presented in a modern blending of elements from Chinese opera, mime, melodrama, and silent film comedy.

Technology at Deaf Way II
Technology was ubiquitous at Deaf Way II, from the opening night performance onwards. Indeed, many of the key events, including all the plenary and breakout sessions during the conference, relied heavily on its use. The 10,000-seat auditorium used for the opening performance and for plenary presentations throughout the week was so large it was cavernous. People in the back half of the auditorium would not have been able to understand sign language on the distant stage if not for several large screens situated throughout the audience that projected all speakers, interpreters, and performers into larger-than-life images. More than 40 large screen projection systems were used in the auditorium and throughout the various smaller conference rooms used for as many as 12 breakout sessions at a time throughout the week. Yet, technology was always in the background, overshadowed by the content of the performances, speeches, and presentations themselves. In short, the massive technological effort at Deaf Way II was, in a sense, invisible. And that's just the way Jeffrey Murray, Co-Coordinator of the Technology committee, liked it.

"The whole point of having the technology for Deaf Way II was to make it blend into the event," said Murray. "The attendees enjoyed all of the visual aspects of the event without being overwhelmed with the amount of technology. For example, the opening ceremonies were a huge success. But everyone I spoke with talked about the performers, the Chinese dancers, the clowns, the Native American prayer. Not one person talked about the technology. That was the goal, to make the technology enhance the show, and not steal it."

"There was literally an army of technicians," said Murray. Among them were 15 real-time captioners, flown in from across the country, who produced live captioning for all plenary and breakout sessions. The English text at the bottom of the projection screens throughout every speech enabled comprehension for audience members who did not sign well, or who did not know American Sign Language or Gestuno. Technology also helped defeat geography. "Because of the vast size of the D.C. Convention Center, every member of the Deaf Way Organizing Committee had two-way text pagers," Murray noted. "These became vital for communication inside the convention center and on Gallaudet's campus."

"The only thing I would like to add is how proud I was, personally, to see the Gallaudet community make Deaf Way II a success for the people who attended. While it was a lot of work, Gallaudet staff and faculty came together like I have never seen in my 14 years here and put on an event the world will never forget."

Cadre of Interpreters
Another resource at Deaf Way II was the cadre of approximately 300 interpreters who helped ensure that all participants understood all the performances, presentations, and concurrent workshops during the week, starting with the opening night performance. The three official languages of Deaf Way II were English, American Sign Language (ASL), and Gestuno. However, signed languages vary as widely as spoken languages from country to country and sometimes even from region to region. Many participants from other countries did not know ASL. Some were able to learn basic vocabulary in Gestuno by watching an educational videotape developed by the Developing Nations Support Service for Deaf Way II. Gestuno incorporates many of the basic grammatical and syntactical elements, and some of the vocabulary, used in signed languages from around the world. Accordingly, people who already know one signed language fluently are often able to learn Gestuno relatively quickly. According to Juniper Sussman Co-Coordinator of the Interpreting Committee, a total of 60 interpreters translated into Gestuno during Deaf Way II.

In addition, 28 countries sent a total of 80 interpreters able to translate presentations into the native signed language of their country, said Sussman. One hundred interpreters and an additional 123 Support Service Providers worked with deaf-blind participants, including about eight who worked with deaf-blind people from other countries, said Sussman. Altogether, there were interpreters at Deaf Way II handling a total of 31 languages--only one of them spoken. The sign language-dominant environment made Deaf Way II the logical place for using deaf professionally certified interpreters: Sussman estimates that about 30 percent of the interpreters were themselves deaf. Deaf interpreters are able to translate between different signed languages and are able to relay signs from other signers to deaf-blind people. Individuals working with deaf-blind people are also responsible for conveying visual information from the environment, such as power point graphics and the emotional reactions of the audience.

Highlights from Plenary & Breakout Sessions
For many Deaf Way II participants, the opening night performance was a pleasant evening of relaxation before a rigorous week of learning about technology used by deaf people, sign language research, education of deaf children and adults, mental health issues affecting deaf people, community development and advocacy, deaf children and adults in families, deaf youth, the profession of interpreting, recreation and leisure among deaf people, the economic empowerment of deaf communities, and deaf culture. The plenary sessions alone allowed participants to learn about text pagers from the president of America On Line, issues related to adopting deaf children across international borders, sign language research conducted on a small island near the main body of Japan, the experiences of a deaf woman mountain climber, and the history of deaf towns in Russia, to name a few.

Relay Service Goes International
Audience members at the first plenary session of the week were also the first people to receive an official announcement that the Sprint Relay Company is now starting to expand their services beyond the United States into other countries, including developing countries. Sprint Relay, along with America Online, Inc., and Communication Services for the Deaf (CSD), was one of the main sponsors for Deaf Way II. The company runs TTY relay services throughout the United States that mediate telephone calls between TTY users and people without TTYs. They have also started to provide video relay services, with computers and web cameras hooked up via the internet, that allow phone callers to use sign language interpreters at a remote location to translate their phone calls. Sprint's services are intended to enable deaf, hard of hearing, and speech impaired people to have full access to the telephone.

"The United States government, 27 states, and Puerto Rico rely on Sprint to provide services to a population that would otherwise experience unjust and needless isolation," said Tony D'Agata, a Sprint representative. "I like to think we're in the quality of life business."

Technology Transforming Lives
Raymond J. Oglethorpe, president of America Online, praised the spirit of the original and the second Deaf Way. "Thirteen years ago, the first Deaf Way conference helped pave the way for self-advocacy to make known the needs of the disabled community. Now, we are here again," Oglethorpe noted. He spoke about how the uses of technology in the United States have transformed the lives of deaf and hard of hearing people. In particular, he indicated that the internet and text pagers have removed barriers to communication. Text pagers, for example, give deaf users "direct, unfiltered access to the same information as everyone else about movies and shopping," he said. Oglethorpe urged audience members to help America Online become more accessible to them. "If AOL is inaccessible, we need to hear about it," he said.

An Executive's Boyhood Dreams
Benjamin J. Soukup, chief executive of CSD, gave a plenary presentation about his experiences as a deaf boy growing up with deaf parents on a farm and going on to establish a nationwide, private, nonprofit organization serving deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States. "Let me tell you a story about an 8-year-old boy," he began. "The boy loved his father and very much wanted to be a farmer. He woke at 5 a.m. and worked until evening. The boy was thrilled with the idea of running a farm. Then a storm destroyed the crops. The insurance didn't cover all the damage. The father took the boy to the bank and wrote back and forth to ask for funding, but the banker was not sure if he should make a loan because he didn't know if a deaf man could run a farm." The farm was auctioned off, piece by piece; the father became a carpenter, but was not happy being anything other than a farmer. The boy eventually started working with the deaf community. "That boy was me," Soukup said. "I saw so many deaf people experience barriers because they were not given opportunities. The passion of that 8-year-old boy never burned out."

South African Parliamentarian
Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the first deaf woman in the world to become an elected official, shared her experiences as a member of the national South Africa Parliament. Some of her work has included participating in a committee on communications where she advocates for making telecommunications more accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people in South Africa. "I feel a particular responsibility to advocate for people with disabilities. But when I'm on the Parliament, I'm not a deaf advocate, I'm a lawmaker," said Newhoudt-Druchen. She must balance her responsibilities to the deaf community with her responsibilities as a member of Parliament, she explained. But her mere presence has created an opportunity to educate members of Parliament about the needs of deaf people. "I was the first person to present in sign language. I got support from [my party] and the opposition party for my speech," she noted. "Some had disabled or deaf people in their families. In South Africa, many disabled people are hidden or locked up at home.

Becoming a teacher in Thailand
A deaf woman from Thailand, named Peoungpaka Janawong, presented both during a plenary session and as the member of a panel in a breakout session later the same day. During the breakout session, she told the audience about her life as a deaf girl growing up in Thailand. Until she went to school for the first time at age 8, she recalled, "I had no sign language in my life. Teachers were not good at communicating. Students talked with each other to figure out what the teachers were saying. Outside of class we signed about everything." She graduated after the 9th grade but had no opportunity to continue her education.

Janawong worked as a seamstress for four years until she heard about a new program, run by Gallaudet University, called the World Deaf Leadership (WDL) institute. She applied for, and was accepted into, a program that taught deaf adults how to teach Thai Sign Language. "I was unaware of sign language having grammar, or the methods of teaching sign language. Now the government, parents, and teachers are looking to us to teach the sign language to them," said Janawong. She obtained a high school equivalency at the same time that she obtained certification in teaching sign language. She is now teaching Thai Sign Language and studying in a BA program. "It is very important to have deaf teachers," said Janawong. "I had no idea that was possible, or that there were deaf teachers from other countries. Now I feel confident and proud."

In her plenary presentation, Janawong described WDL's program in Thailand. WDL's focus, she explained, is on addressing the communication gap that exists between hearing and deaf people, deaf children's isolation from family life, and their limited opportunity to obtain an education or employment. The Ratchasuda College now offers a certificate in teaching Thai Sign Language, and the Thai government has officially recognized Thai Sign Language as a language. Programs in rural areas helps reach isolated deaf children to teach them sign language and integrate them into family life. "Before WDL, we had subsistence wages," said Janawong. "After WDL, we have more pride and a better sense of life."

She emphasized her message with a brief video clip. There is a school with window. Through the window, we see a classroom. There is a teacher talking with his mouth, holding a paper plane in his hand. There is a small deaf boy on a bus watching with longing written on his face. Then there is another man-the little boy grown up-in front of a new classroom, signing to his deaf students. He tells them, not in words but by his very presence, "I am deaf, just like you. You can be smart and competent, just like me. But that is not all that I want to teach you. Come outside with me. Let me show you something."

The children eagerly follow. They all stand outside. Everyone has a paper plane in his or her hand. The children's small, round faces are all lit from within with excitement. They are leaping with anticipation. Now the teacher instructs them to fling their planes toward the distant horizon and the blue sky. A dozen paper planes sail into the air. They soar off the side of the screen, seemingly into an infinitely boundless future. Deaf people can do anything-even fly.

table of contents - home page - text-only home page

Email this article to a friend!