Thursday, October 29, 2009

A dictionary for the deaf

Source Link - A dictionary for the deaf

In the stifling afternoon heat, a momentous occasion came to pass today. There was excited chattering all around but with a difference - it was soundless. Animated facial expressions and rapid-fire hand gestures created an atmosphere of exhilaration. This was the inauguration ceremony of the first Maldivian sign language dictionary. A book that will work as a bridge between the deaf community and the rest of society.

The event kicked off with a recitation of the Qur’an. A translation followed with Mohamed Awwam accompanying in sign language, setting the tone for the rest of the ceremony. Mariyam Fazni, the first-ever Maldivian teacher specialising in teaching deaf students presented each of the speeches through sign language. Even their applause, which came in the form of waving both hands in the air, was different.

Speaking at the ceremony, Hassan Mohamed, the principal of Jamaaludeen School said, “This will enable parents to help children with their school work and help people communicate with members of the deaf community.” He spoke about the start of special classes set aside in the school for children who were hearing-impaired.

The school first started offering classes for deaf children in 1985, after a class full of children with a variety of disabilities, proved too difficult to teach. “This year we started grade eight and we have five students,” said Mohamed. “We hope that these students will be able to finish secondary school here.”

Two years ago Jamaaludeen School introduced primary school classes for hearing-impaired children. “We still don’t have enough students,” said Mohamed. “There are still some parents who hide their children, despite the fact that it had been proven these kids perform better than average.” He called for a survey to be conducted to find out the number of deaf children and ensure they had access to education.

Amaresh Gopalakrishnan, a special educator and architect of the book, said language was of paramount importance to any community. “This will give an identity to the deaf community,” he said. Amaresh moved his mouth without uttering a sound, saying, “Even for two minutes you can’t stand this.” In response to the myth about sign language being universal, he said, “Each has its own methodical structure. The deaf community is a linguistic minority that does not depend on any language.”

When he first arrived in the Maldives in 2007, Amaresh was surprised to find he could not communicate with deaf people on the street with the signs he was learning at the school. He travelled with Ahmed Ashfag, the head of the Maldives Deaf Association, to four islands and found that each had their own set of signs. “From all this we have documented 650 signs and we have shown the book to many people to ensure that even a layman could understand it,” said Amaresh. His father, who is deaf, did the illustrations.

Mariyam Fazni said the book would enable teachers on the islands to teach deaf children, while Ashfag summed up the feelings of many of those present today by saying that it was the happiest day of his life in sign language. “This is my language. The doors have opened for this community now and we will not be silent anymore. We will scream,” he gesticulated. Ahmed Mohamed, one of the student’s parents, said those present had both the “brains and the will” to go on to higher education. “I hope they get the chance soon,” he said.

The project was funded by Handicap International and Lucy Roberts, the charity’s country manager, said the dictionary helped raise awareness about the deaf community and the problems they faced. Short theatrical productions followed, each highlighting the challenges experienced by deaf people in school, in society and even in matters of the heart.

Speaking at the occasion, President Mohamed Nasheed said he was pleased to be part of the day as he had two deaf relatives and had witnessed their problems. He also said an absence of communication hampered freedom of expression.

“I might not have stood in front of a podium and made promises about this, but I have given my word to a person from the deaf association who worked closely with me on the campaign trail that my government would do all it could to help this community,” he said. Nasheed said he hoped sign language would be taught in all schools so that everyone could communicate with deaf people. By the end of the year, he added, he hoped 1,000 people would learn sign language, equal to the 1,000 dictionaries that had been published.

The president said he envisaged a Maldives where selfishness was not a virtue and where people did not always seek out others who were like them. “What is lacking in one Maldivian should be compensated by another,” he said. At the end, students celebrated with a dance performance, throwing confetti into the air. Mariyam Rizwana, the first deaf teacher, ended the event by thanking those involved, adding that it was was “a new dawn for the deaf community.”