Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Posted originally on the Signing Time Academy Blog:
Somehow, I convinced a remarkable young woman to marry me nine years ago, and she went around being remarkable until someone invited her to go to Ghana. I tagged along.
It started when a friend gave us some DVDs, featuring an overly chipper woman in orange, to help us communicate with our developmentally delayed son.
Since then, my wife has started training to be an ASL interpreter, and has worked for Rachel in a number of capacities. I tended to be involved in some of the larger projects she did for the Signing Time Foundation, and as such, we both got to join Rachel, Leah, and a small group of other wonderful people whose names you won't likely recognize, on a trip to support the Demonstration School for the Deaf in Mampong, Ghana.
It is really difficult to put into words exactly how the trip affected me, or how I feel we made a difference there. It was an unfortunately brief visit, so everything jumbled and blurred together in a busy whirlwind of activity. It certainly put my own affluence and happiness in perspective. As Ronai said, the people there are surprisingly happy for the level of poverty in which they live. I'd seen that kind of poverty before in Mexico, but I hadn't immersed in it for a week, and this seemed qualitatively different somehow. If you look at this picture of a table from a college sociology textbook, you'll see that the populace of Ghana is somehow happier than we are here in the US (or at least, that was the case in the late '90's, and I don't know that we've gotten any happier here since the tech bubble burst).
But this trip also showed me how very important it is to have made the social equality advances we have. There are still places where the Deaf cannot serve on a jury here in the US, but they have opportunities here that they don't have in most of the world. Here, there are Deaf doctors, lawyers, and teachers, and the ADA rules mean they can get an interpreter in most situations where they need one. The contrast with Ghana was immense. The DemoDeaf school is a haven in Ghana for children who are often otherwise forgotten or ignored. There, they get training, they get education, they get food and clothing, language and a peer group. But outside of the school, their world is very different.
The school is run by a wonderful woman who happens to be one of some two dozen interpreters in the whole country, but until recently even that school was run by someone who didn't use sign language. As you can see in the video, the general public is completely unaware of how Deafness works, or even what sign language is.
The gentleman in those videos is a tour guide at a national park in Ghana, presumably someone who meets and talks with a very large number of people on a daily basis, and he had never met a Deaf person or seen sign language, much less seen a Deaf person interacting as an equal.
I hope we changed that tour guide's perspective a little. I know we helped a lot of kids at the school immensely. We mostly worked with the younger age groups while there, and I helped Rachel teach a class that signed words, fingerspelled words, and written words were all equivalent, and all could represent real things they could see and touch. I helped a new arrival at the school write his first few words at probably 10 or 11 years of age.
We showed them that Leah was our equal, and their equal. It was a very powerful experience.
I've been supporting the Signing Time Foundation's work for about two years now in one way or another, and I have never been more convinced of the importance and value of what they do than I was on this trip. While we were there, we got to meet the very first Ghanaian to graduate from a two year college.
He was only able to make it that far, is only able to dream higher still, because of the help of groups like ours, because of people like you. That's what the donation link at the bottom is about. Use it.
Going to Ghana as an interpreting student, I experienced the same culture shock surrounding poverty as the others have noted, as well as the lack of in interpreting services and limits to what Deaf children are able to achieve in the current structure, and the misconceptions and prejudices that are rampant in the country. Then I remembered that the concept of Deaf education only came to Ghana in 1957, when Andrew Foster established the school that would become DemoDeaf.
1957! Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet brought Frenchman Laurent Clerc to Connecticut and established the first American school for the Deaf in 1817. We started almost 200 year ago. The Ghanaians have only been at this for 55 years, and they've started high schools for the Deaf, finally created a college program and a University program that now accept Deaf students, began an interpreter certification process, established the GNAD (Ghanaian National Association of the Deaf) and passed a law protecting people with disabilities in 2006. The headmaster of the Deaf school signs, voice-off (something that doesn't happen in many Deaf schools in the US) and there are vocational training classes for Deaf students in hair design, wood working and batik-making that prepare the students to get jobs upon graduating. This also is uncommon among American Deaf schools.
55 years into the Deaf journey in the US, despite the recent establishment of Gallaudet University, the oralist movement (that ran the gamut from "simply" banning sign language to the sterilization of Deaf individuals) was beginning what would be a 150 year battle for the language and education of the Deaf community.
The talk given to our group by Samuel Asare, the former president of the GNAD, absolutely blew my mind as he discussed these advancements for the Deaf in Ghanaian culture.
American Sign Language was first recognized as a language in the 1960s, Deaf children were guaranteed interpreters in school in the 1970s, and the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990. Life for Deaf individuals has greatly improved in the United States in the last 40 or 50 years, and so life for the Deaf in Ghana seems so hard in comparison, but in several ways, they're ahead of us.
Given that shift in perspective, the experience was a positive view of all the possibilities looming on the horizon for these children. When one high school boy told me he wanted more than to simply go to college and University and come back as a teacher of the Deaf, my heart swelled. When Curry started Signs of Hope International, and they began their work in Ghana nine years ago, even that outcome would have been out of this boy's reach. That's astoundingly fast progress in such a short time.
So yes, we had fun; yes, it was the most heartbreaking experience of my life. Yes, the children at the school assumed we were all Deaf because we could sign, and after they were disabused of that notion, they assumed that all white people could sign. Yes, the special education students are going to have a harder time than the "typical" Deaf students, but that's always the way of it. Yes, the guide in the national forest was blown away by an obviously intelligent Deaf individual (Leah), but the guide at the slave castle was so used to interpreters that he made sure to give Ronai and Curry the light and positioning they needed to do their job effectively. That's change. It may seem slow to us, but it's progress, one person at a time, and I'm glad to have been a part of it.
Seeing children make the connection, for the first time, between signs, fingerspelled words, written words and actual objects and movements was so humbling.
These kids are so eager to learn, to grow, to change their world. When we left, after too short of a visit, I knew I wasn't done with those children, their movement, and their country.
When in Ghana, we were cautioned against saying we wanted to come back/hoped to come back/would like to come back, as these are seen, culturally, as promises to return. However, I know that when I graduate from my interpreting program, the first thing I'm going to do is apply to SOHI for their 3 month January interpreting stint, because I want to help stoke the fires of change that are already near to boiling over in this wonderful place.
The work the Signing Time Foundation and Signs of Hope International do is only possible because people like you, who know the challenges of communication disorders, who are parenting children with special needs, who know and love people in the Deaf community and who understand the benefits of signing. Please donate to help us meet our goals. These children are depending on all of us.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Jetlag is finally over (the day before we go home), but I’m glad to finally feel a little better physically. However, I’m just so heartbroken about the state of the education in this place (not that it is much different from many state schools in the US), and the limitations society has placed on these children who can do anything except hear, I get distraught about my inability to change anything meaningful, and how ineffectual this short trip is. I found myself bouncing between those feelings of despair, and a real desire to come back for a longer trip and see if I can actually affect a change, back to wondering if there was any kind of impact really happening.
Part of our party was off looking at local churches, so I sat around and talked to Rachel and Aaron. I found myself repeating something that is constantly asked of Pablo: “You know almost no dads learn to sign with their kids right?” He answered with the same I-did-what-I-did-because-I-love-my-child that Pablo always uses, in the same tired tone.
The conversation would around personality and life and way from the topic, but I was yet again struck by my first impression of Aaron Coleman(alright, second. The first one was, “Wow, he’s tall!”): What a great Dad.
Then M- and H- showed up. This was while Ronai and Jen were being church-napped, by the way. When we told M- what they had planned to do: head over to peek in the church windows and get a little glimpse) he started to laugh uncontrollably. He told us there was no way that they were going to be able to sneak anywhere, being obrunis, and that they’d probably be dragged to the front of the church, the congregation would make a huge deal about their presence, and they’d have a hard time escaping. He said they’d be lucky to avoid getting baptized into a new faith against their will, a thought that all of us found absolutely hilarious.
M- caught us up on his educational adventure, now that he’s at the University and has completed his basic college education. Watching this man talk about coming up through the higher education system in Ghana, mostly without interpreters, and how hard he’d had to fight to merely get into college, much less through it, blew me away. Then, as he talked about his time at the University now, his plans for grad school, and how there were more than a dozen people following in his footsteps, I was heartsick and amazed.
I was reminded of a conversation I’d just had up at the school with one of the high school Given that shift in perspective, the experience was a positive view of all the possibilities looming on the horizon for these children. When one high school boy told me he wanted more than to simply go to college and University and come back as a teacher of the Deaf, my heart swelled. When Curry started Signs of Hope International, and they began their work in Ghana nine years ago, even that outcome would have been out of this boy's reach. That's astoundingly fast progress in such a short time.
Lunch completed, we trudged back up to the school to “entertain” the kids for a few hours. It was great fun, and I was able to pick up the skirts that E-, the sewing teacher had made for me. We wandered around outside with the kids, as they hugged us and mugged for the camera.
Then we headed inside the cafeteria for some shade. Once inside, some of the older kids ignored us and watched a soccer game ... I mean ... “football match” on the single TV. The younger kids, however, were thrilled to see us, and we goofed around quite a bit. Then, one older middle school girl came up to me and asked if we were going home the next day. I said yes. She got indignant and angry, and asked me, pointedly, why we’d come if we were only going to stay for such a short visit. What could we possibly have accomplished in that short of an amount of time?
Three or four hours before, I’d have responded with, “Good point” or “At least we’re trying to do some good.” However, after the talk with M-, his wife, and jotting down the experiences with the tour guide at Cape Coast, and the Ranger at Kakum, I felt like I was able to answer her:
“We came because each of us has some connection to the Deaf community in our home, and we wanted to learn from you. We also have experience being hearing signing people, and that we had knowledge we could share with them, and their teachers. We wanted to see how much their school had improved, and to share that with the people back home, and we wanted to remind them that they could do anything hearing people could do, despite what cultural roadblocks they came to. I told her about all the people we’d met and talked to, and that as hearing, obruni tourists we were able to go many places (Cape Coast, Kakum) that they had never been (because they are residential students) and communicate with many people they could not (because they were Deaf). With our access, we were able to talk to people, force them to confront their prejudices and change their perspectives, and that if we only managed to change the outlook of a few people, they might talk to their friends and family. That’s how perception shifts change."
Pablo, of course, filmed part of the exchange:
Aaron Coleman with his camera, of course.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Saturday morning we “slept in” until 8 in the morning. Pablo and I had mate' (Argentine tea) and did some reading while Jen, Ronai and Ellie went to a Cocoa farm. The rest was nice, and my feet really appreciated the break from all the hiking in sandals.
We did, however, head back to the Aburi wood district to pick up our pieces. Since not all of us would fit in a single cab, Aaron and Leah hopped into the first cab, leaving Pablo, Rachel and I to grab the next one. When the river stopped, however, he already had a man and a woman in the back, leaving only two “open” seats. Pablo took the front seat, and Rachel and I tried to figure out how to take up one seat in the back. Finally, we settled on sitting her tiny backside on my knees.
So, there you go. If only you’d come to Africa, maybe you, too could have had the notorious Rachel Coleman in your lap. : )
We arrived in Aburi and I went to pick up the pieces I’d ordered. First, I picked up the Man-Angel, or “mangel” as he has come to be known.
Here’s the artist who made the angel for me (with Ronai and a piece he made for her):
Then, I went to see A-, the young wood carver from Rachel’s trip 4 years ago. Here he is in 2008:
He’s taken this photo:
and created this:
He was even willing to let another silly signing lady take is photo:
Then, I went to go get my Nativity. I’d been collecting wooden Nativity pieces for years, and two years ago they were all broken in a “my-four-year-old-was-helping” type accident. So, I’ve been Nativity-less for about a year now. I wanted something big and less breakable, and so we asked for a plaque to be crated, that we could hang on a wall, out of her reach.
I was very specific about the piece, wanting not only Mary, Jospeh, Jesus, and an Angel, but also a shepherd, the wisemen, a donkey, a sheep and a camel. We got this piece, that measures about 24 inches long by 12 inches tall:
Beautiful, isn't it?
I’m just in love. Look at all that detail!
We walked back to the taxi stand, took a cab back to the hotel, and then had a relaxed a peaceful time reading, napping and preparing for Sunday. A day off was nice, as we’d been ON 8 hours a day, at least, for the past week.
A quiet dinner, followed by rum&cokes for a few of us, and we were down for the evening.