For the second of my blogs about deaf children in Nicaragua, I interviewed two North American deaf activists who came here recently to visit deaf programmes. Even thirty years after the Sandinista revolution, there is a still some solidarity with Nicaragua from the USA and Europe. Brigades visit the country to see the reality here. Kath and I helped organise a brigade of interpreters for the deaf, who visited the Special School in Estelí for a week. It was a great chance to see the lives of deaf people in Nicaragua through the eyes of people in the deaf world in the USA.
The brigade came from Oregon Western University, and was supported by the deaf education charity Manos Unidas. I interviewed Professor Patrick Graham, the coordinator of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing programme, and Erin Maue, a student in the interpreting programme who aims to work as a teacher of the deaf. Both are deaf and use American Sign Language as their preferred method of communication.
I asked about their impressions of the deaf community in Nicaragua from this brief visit. ‘It’s very different to anything I’m used to’, said Erin. ‘There is a huge lack of resources here, the students deserve a lot better. Most of the children are really language-deprived – it’s a shock to see 15 year olds so far behind’.
The Special School, where the brigade worked for a week, (painting murals and making educational materials), is a school for children with all types of disabilities – deaf, blind, cerebral palsy, autistic spectrum, and other behavioural problems. Patrick remarked ‘I get the idea of inclusion, but so much time is lost to teaching. We saw that some of the deaf children can read or can recognise colours, but there are so many interruptions. And there are so few materials. Deaf children depend a lot on visuals, on touch, movement, even smell. Chairs and desks are less important than resources are, to play with, and learn from. I don’t get the impression the teachers take the kids out to explore the world around them. There could be much better training of the teachers’.
We talked about priorities. This is partly because Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America. But it’s also a perennial discussion topic for the deaf community in any country. Signing, or hearing aids? Deaf culture or integration? These are polemical questions in the North and also discussed here in the South. ‘The top priority for me would be teach deaf people here to sign’, said Patrick. The health service in Nicaragua is free, but doesn’t provide hearing aids. ‘Even if you have aids, the batteries can run out, or the aids can break – but you always have your hands’.
‘Children should have both opportunities’ agreed Erin, ‘to be taught to sign, but also to have hearing aids’. But for deaf schools there are many more costs and demands. There will be problems of sound-proofing and more equipment. Patrick said ‘I’d love to come back and be able to build a school with sound-proofing, with aids and signs, and an outside area where the children could learn…and where the deaf community can see role models… successful deaf people …. It’s all connected.’
The other crying-need is an early identification programme for the deaf. Hearing babies are learning language from the day they are born. The first four years of life are the most crucial for learning a language. But in Nicaragua most children don’t start school until age 5 or 6. Depending where you live, there is either no system for identifying deaf children, or the system is extremely weak and haphazard. Yet if you can identify a child with hearing loss when they are young, it’s possible to provide language (either through signing or with hearing aids, or both). ‘Early intervention is the bread and butter of deaf education … the early years are much more important than age five to 18’. But sadly it barely exists here.
‘We saw one young child in the school who was identified at age three and is now being helped’, said Patrick. ‘That’s fantastic, early ID is working for him. He is learning to sign, he wants to come to school because that’s the only place where he can communicate… He could be a leader of the deaf-community in the future. But only if his mum brings him to school and encourages him’.
I finished by asking what impressions they would take back to their lives in the USA. Erin said she would use her phone less, try to be more patient with people, and walk more. ‘I realised that if the school is a mile away, then you can just walk there…. It’s not the end of the world.’
Patrick emphasised the disparity in wealth and resources: ‘Maybe in the North we have too many materials…. we could be more inventive? The teachers here do so much with so little. There are no educational toys in the school – if the teacher buys one she has to buy it out of her own salary. In Oregon University we just built a new state-of-the-art building and apparently it has 11,000 feet of cables. Here they can’t even afford to photocopy worksheets. All they can do is write on the board, and the children copy it down, whether they understand it or not. When the board is full the teacher rubs it out so she can continue.
‘But it’s not only about resources’, said Patrick, ‘it’s about identity. At the moment in Nicaragua adults are ashamed to have a disabled child. Many hide them away. We need more role models like some of the deaf adults we met here, to go knocking on doors and bring the deaf children to school. The state shouldn’t look at deaf people as disabled, but as a cultural minority with their own language. Deaf children need to learn their identity first as being deaf, and then as being Nicaraguan. Proud deaf people here are the ones who can take the community forward’.