Deaf in North and South

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.

Learning Nicaraguan Sign Language with local instructor Heydi

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’.

An activity in the Special School run by the brigade from Oregon

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’.

Erin painting with one of the school students

‘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.

Patrick & Kath building rapport with Shoskey through sign language

‘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.

The Oregon brigade met American ambassador Laura Dogu (back row in blue top) who is supportive of deaf education in Nicaragua

‘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’.

 

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Education for Deaf Children in Nicaragua

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.

Young leaders of the deaf community in Esteli speak with the American ambassador at the beginning of the school year.

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.

Audiology testing service in Jinotega. Few children in Nicaragua have their hearing tested, and even fewer can be provided with hearing aids.

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).

Children do far better in school if they have learnt language while young.

Outreach services rarely reach isolated areas, such as this village in Miraflor, outside Esteli.

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.

Nicaraguan Sign Language dictionary

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.

Rural school in Jinotega. Few of these children will ever have had their hearing tested

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.