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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Deaf community emerges from life of silence

Deaf community emerges from life of silence

Nights out with deaf people can be lonely when you don't know sign language.

Several weeks ago I found myself with a group happily signing away to each other

while I was effectively rendered mute by the loud music. Confused by having to

wave my hands and occasionally scream in somebody's ear, it struck me as normal

to find somebody gesticulating their life story to me.

By the time the

woman had finished her story, Justin Smith from the Deaf Development Project

(DDP) had joined us at the bar. Smith signs in several languages and has been

working with the deaf community in Cambodia. The girl was deaf and couldn't

speak so Smith tried to sign, but quickly realized she didn't know

any.

"I think she thinks that everybody is just like her. I don't think

she knows that she is deaf," said Smith after reverting to gesticulation to talk

to her. The bar staff said they just thought she was mad.

"Every year we

come across people like this, they don't have a proper language," said

communications officer Beatrice Magnier for Krousar Thmei, an organization that

helps educate the disadvantaged and disabled. "People think that deaf people are

just stupid; we're trying to change this attitude in Cambodia."

Approximately 1-2 percent of any country's population is deaf. In

Cambodia that means 120,000 to 240,000 people. On top of that, 10 percent have

hearing impairments, one-third of whom have sufficient hearing loss to need

assistance; this is judged by whether they can use a phone or not. That's

another 400,000 people who have a severe enough impairment to warrant the use of

sign language in Cambodia.

Together, Krousar Thmei and the Deaf

Development Project have around 800 people involved in receiving formal or

informal deaf education. Charlie Dietmier from Maryknoll, one of the DDP's main

supporters, was realistic about the progress. "We're not even scratching the

surface as far as outreach goes," he said.

The majority of the deaf

can't receive an education in Cambodia. The first 'Deaf project' was in the

refugee camps on the Thai border in the 90s. When deaf people started to come

together emotions ran high as most had never met anyone else like them, and

hadn't understood their disability.

But the deaf community is growing

through the work of Krousar Thmei's schools and the DDP's programs of informal

education.

Friday, September 24, is International Deaf Day, and the deaf

community is gathering in a parade from the Independence Monument to Wat Botum.

The Khmer Deaf Theatre Project has been rehearsing for the last month with

Sokong Kim and Rob Roy Farmer, veteran international deaf

performers.

Sokong, 24, left Cambodia for Australia with his parents when

aged three, and returned to Cambodia for a month to work with the deaf theatre

project. He doesn't speak Khmer and has had to adapt from Australian sign

language to Khmer sign language on the job. "We've been really impressed at the

progress of the students," said Sokong, "At first they just copied us, but we've

been able to get them to put forward their own ideas, they are just starting to

become aware of what they're capable of."

One of the lead actors only started

learning sign language in February.

The students performed at Sovanna

Phum theatre to a packed audience on Tuesday, September 21, and will be

showcasing their talent again on International Deaf Day when the Khmer Deaf

Theatre Project will perform at 3:55 pm at Wat Botum.

Kerstin Olsson, an

audience member of Tuesday's show and specialist in sign language grammar,

signed that it reminded her of when her home country Sweden accepted sign

language in 1981 after lobbying and awareness raising by the deaf community.

"But the difference is that we had a sign language already. Cambodia's sign

language is still being made. This is the only country in the world I've seen

with no strong deaf community," she signed.

But with the work of the DDP

and Krousar Thmei deaf people are coming together, although as deaf schooling is

expensive - requiring more staff - resources are limited.

"We try to get

the word out, which has good and bad results, the word is spreading, but we've

been getting swamped. For example, deaf people who get arrested contact us and

want an interpreter, and deaf people with AIDS contact us and want support,"

said Dietmier.

"It's very hard to say you have AIDS in Khmer sign

language. The best you can do is motion that you've got something in your blood

that is bad. The other party may think that he has worms in his blood," said

Dietmier.

"Each one of these things is going to require more staff, and

it's not like if someone gave us one million dollars we could go out and hire 8

more teachers. We'd have to train them first," he said.

In refugee camps

deaf Khmers were taught American Sign Language as there was no Khmer

alternative. Forty percent of US sign language is the same as French sign

language, from which it originated. "Just as English is spreading through the

hearing world, US sign language is spreading through the signing world," said

Dietmier.

There weren't any deaf schools until 1997. Now Krousar Thmei

-which means New Family-operates four schools for 450 deaf students. Grade 8 is

the highest that deaf children can attain through the schools before they go

into hearing schools with a sign language interpreter. Krousar Thmei is working

towards creating special classes in places where they can find enough deaf

people to constitute a class.

The deaf community is growing, but

representatives from the DDP and Krousar Thmei both echoed that it is early

days. The DDP currently has scouts researching sign language around Cambodia and

recently TVK employed sign language interpreters from Krousar Thmei to translate

the news once a week, bringing the news to deaf people, and the public into

contact with deaf issues.

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