Originally posted on the Signing Time Foundation Blog:
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.