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
"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
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
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,"
"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
"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
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.