Helping Others, Helped Me
Imagine for a moment, being in your 40’s, and being completely dependent on others. You don’t work, you rarely leave the house, you have no friends, and no one to talk to. You can’t even make the simplest choices in your life, like what to eat, what to wear, or where to go. Imagine the only way to let someone know you’re tired or unhappy is to throw a tantrum. Imagine being an intelligent adult who has no words to think in. For many hard of hearing people this is their every day reality. Sadly, in most cultures, having children with disabilities is viewed with shame.
In a lands with limited education and limited resources it is not uncommon for families to hide away their children from the rest of the world. For four years I had the privilege of helping deaf children and their families to communicate. As well as to help integrate deaf people into society.
An Introduction to Deafness
In developed lands with better specialized education people with hearing impairments have fought hard to live independent full lives. This has led to hard-earned deaf pride.
Deaf Culture* describes the social beliefs, behaviors, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are affected by deafness. Members of the deaf community tend to view deafness as a difference in human experience and not a disability. The use of sign language is central to cultural identity and deafness is not generally considered a condition that needs to be fixed.
For over a century, experts had typically advised parents not to allow their deaf children to learn sign language and not to learn it themselves because it would impede their children’s progress toward mastering English.
Experts taught that becoming fluent in English would mean reaping the rewards of the hearing world. Speaking has been equated with the higher classes and higher intellect, signing with the lower. Most deaf students prefer manual signs and criticize oralism because they have to concentrate on how words are formed instead of what they mean.
Today many schools integrate both languages. The language of their heart, American Sign Language. As well as English, the language of social integration and economic independence.
Being deaf in Toledo, Belize
Now imagine only going to school until the second or third grade. You have 12 kids and you work very hard trying to provide for them. Many Mayans in Belize live on slash and burn farming, without electricity or modern appliances. They cook on fire hearths on the ground. Back breaking work. Now imagine one of your children is hard of hearing. No mater what you do you can’t communicate with them, worse yet and you have no idea what to do.
As a result many deaf children are pushed into a corner so to speak. When I met one young deaf boy he went to school dirty, and without shoes. Other children threw stones at him and made him cry. Every year he was passed to the next grade in school when he couldn’t even write his name or speak. He was about 9 and had no language. For us when we learn a second language we make connection. For example apple is manzana in Spanish. Bernando though had no language at all so we had to help unlock his brain. We started with simple signs, animals, things around the house, names for everyone in the family. We would visit Bernando at the school giving him one on one lessons. With his family we would play games like charades so he could feel included in activities.
Even though we knew that Bernando and his family would probably never be fluent in American Sign Language we knew we could help them. During the course of the two years I worked with Bernando I watched him start bathing, wear shoes, clean clothes, put gel in his hair. He changed from a “little monster” to a smiling, happy boy. His classmates grew jealous of his special classes and started to learn ASL. His little sister who loved sign language quickly became his interpreter. His mother had peace knowing she could give him the basic things he asked for, and finally he could help her with chores around the house like his other siblings.
One women told my roommate that her 14-year-old daughter, Sharon went from being the worst member of the family to the best. She threw tantrums and beat up her younger brothers. Her father unsure of what to do, would lose his temper and beat her. What was the root of this problem? Part of the reason was that she would see them laughing together and think they were making fun of her. Its sounds so simple, until you picture yourself in a house where everyone speaks a different language than you. You are sitting among then feeling completely alone, while they are laughing and having a good time. Occasionally, they look in your direction, but you have no idea what they are saying. Helping them understand each others feelings went a long way to promoting good relations. We worked with the family to help them include her more, and helped Sharon to cultivate patience with them in return.
My one friend Abelia is a smart, grown women. When she was a child, her parents had sent her away to a Mennonite school where she became completely fluent in ASL. She is a fantastic cook and talented at many crafts like sewing and jewelry making. Yet, she was living in her village completely dependent on her parents for everything, and two hours by bus from the nearest town. They were afraid to let her out in the village in case someone tried to make fun of her or abuse her. We worked with her and her family so that she could make and sell bread and other items throughout the village. This gave her, her own money and a measure of independence. We even worked with local buses drivers to make sure she could travel places safely on her own.
They Stole My Heart
It was the most rewarding work I have ever done. Living in an isolated community meant walking long distances in the hot sun with few amenities. The work was extremely draining both mentally and physically. Yet, we would often come home in the evening to find dinner on our door step with steaming hot tortillas. Friends would come and chop our yard because they were afraid we cut ourselves if we tried to use a machete. It was nice to be part of such a close-knit community. When I got sick and had to return to the United States whole families cried, thanking me for all the time I had spent working with them. I felt like I lost part of my heart when I had to leave. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.
*Stephen R. Covey said “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.” For this reason even though my blog is based on my options and experiences I try to double-check information and facts using online sources like Wikipedia and other reliable sites.