Last month I met Laura Dogu, the American Ambassador for Nicaragua. In the past I would have wanted to ask her about 50 years of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, but instead we discussed Nicaraguan Sign Language! My wife is a volunteer here, trying to support the deaf community in Estelí and Jinotega, while taking a career break from her work in the UK as an Implant Teacher of the Deaf at St Thomas’ Hospital. We spend a lot of time visiting the ‘Special School’ (i.e. school for the disabled) and accompanying some small NGO’s that work with deaf children.
The Ambassador was in Estelí to inaugurate the new school year for ETAVS, an Arts and Media project for the deaf. The founder, Famnuel Ubeda, welcomed us all to his mother’s house, where two small dark rooms are used to run Sign Language classes at weekends. They teach both deaf people and hearing students (teachers, parents, medics) to sign. The house is in a poor barrio of Estelí, with mud floors and a pit latrine.
Sign Language is the mode of communication for the deaf here because Nicaragua cannot afford to provide hearing aids to children. And the quality of education, even for hearing children, is sadly poor. In the UK all deaf children can be provided with hearing aids or cochlear implants on the NHS. In Nicaragua the basic health care system is free, but it is basic provision, and does not include hearing aids for the deaf. The hospitals in Estelí and Jinotega can provide a basic audiological assessment, with technical support from a U.S.-based NGO, Mayflower Medical Outreach. But without a hearing aid, a child with only a moderate hearing loss will not be able to access the sounds of speech to learn an oral language.
The first four years of life are crucial, when a child’s brain is geared for language learning. At that age a child can soak up learning like a sponge, and could learn either an oral language or a sign language. But in Nicaragua there is no mechanism to identify babies with hearing difficulties. (In the UK there is a Newborn Hearing Screening programme. Parents can be told at only ten days that their baby has a hearing loss; and the NHS will fit hearing aids on babies at only 2 months).
Academic provision for the deaf is very weak in state schools across Nicaragua. Most deaf children are included in mainstream classes with no extra support or help. We met ‘Prof Julio’, a teacher in a primary school in rural Miraflor, who told us that he teaches a deaf child in third grade. “She doesn’t speak and I have no idea if she understands the curriculum. She copies down what I write on the board, but I have no way of assessing if she knows what it is about”.
Unfortunately, the truth is that she probably doesn’t understand, she just copies the words letter by letter, having no knowledge of Spanish language. However, she causes no problems and enjoys the social interaction of being in school. So, Prof Julio says he is not too worried about her. We are – because the girl will go through school and come out having learned very little and have almost no communication skills at all.
Nicaragua has put its’ focus for the deaf entirely into developing sign language. The good news is that Nicaragua’s deaf community is remarkably developed, considering the level of poverty in the country. This is largely due to the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) following the 1979 Sandinista revolution. With NSL, deaf people in towns are now far less isolated and have a recognised language, if they manage to access it. However, in rural areas, deaf children are still very isolated, with very few opportunities to develop a language. For example, we know Gerald, who came to live with a cousin in Estelí at the age of fifteen. He had spent all of his life until then in the countryside with his direct family, hidden away. He had never been to school and had spent every day in the fields doing manual work. He is now attending the class for deaf students in the special school in Estelí, where he is growing in confidence and beginning to use NSL with his deaf peers. This story is a common one.
Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America, and there is a crying need for more resources for deaf education (and indeed for most education). Some NGOs, such as Manos Unidas fund small programmes and also recently brought down a delegation from Oregon Western University*. Mayflower, mentioned above, have a very good Hostel for Deaf Children in Jinotega. Granada has a café that provides work experience for deaf youngsters coming out of education. But all of these, at present, reach only small numbers of young people.
Nicaragua urgently needs support to establish or strengthen its Early Identification Programme, to take advantage of those magical early years when children can learn so quickly. If hearing-impaired children can be identified young, then they can be helped. Even if the identified children have little chance of getting a hearing aid, they and their parents could then be taught to sign. If you have any ideas for how an Early Identification Programme could be supported, please write on the comments below.
*Next month on this blog we will interview some members of the brigade from Oregon Western University, and ask how deaf people from the USA see the issue of deaf education and deaf identify in Nicaragua.