Deaf students go to university for the first time
30 years ago, there was no developed sign language in Nicaragua. There were a number of home-made signs created within families and circles of friends, but most words had to be spelt out using the manual alphabet. Deaf pupils didn’t get to use sign language in school, but instead had to learn lipreading. The change began with a group of friends who shared a vision to change the situation for deaf persons in Nicaragua. Now, the first deaf students are going to university.
I visit ANSNIC’s building at the height of the Nicaraguan summer. In the shade of the little Veranda, school benches line the walls. We go into the building and pass a couple of rooms with illustrations of various sign language signs and posters from different campaigns that ANSNIC has run over the years. One of the doors we pass is marked “Library”. We emerge into an inner courtyard half-covered by a roof.
In the sun, orange trees grow along the high wall. Suspended from the roof is what looks like a line of lampshades hung up to dry, and a little further away there is an open door that appears to lead to a workshop. We sit down in the shade under the roof and Javier López Gómez, chairman of ANSNIC, offers freshly picked oranges.
Partnership with SDR was the start of something new
– Back when we were still a loose group that met at each other’s homes, we were lucky enough to get to know Anna Scott, a Swedish woman who worked in Managua, he explains. She helped us make contact with deaf people in Sweden.
Together with Anders Andersson from SDR – Swedish National Association of the Deaf, Javier and his friends began to develop ideas about how they could improve the situation for deaf persons in Nicaragua. Through SDR and MyRight, Javier gained the opportunity to spend 10 months studying in Sweden. This proved a key experience for the development of deaf culture in Nicaragua.
– I learned so much in Sweden. I got to experience first-hand how education for deaf people was structured and I learned how deaf persons in Sweden worked to develop their language and create a sign language lexicon, says Javier.
Their own language
When Javier returned to Nicaragua, he worked hard to pass on to his deaf friends everything he had learned in Sweden. Together, they formed the organisation ANSNIC and launched a range of activities.
– I learned Swedish sign language while I was in Sweden. That made me realise that it was important for our Nicaraguan identity that we developed our own sign language, based on our own culture. As we began producing our own lexicon, we were also able to start helping and supporting deaf young people, so that they could manage in school, says Javier.
Deaf children attended special schools, along with children with other disabilities.
– We were pioneers in training teachers in sign language, states Javier. Through our projects with SDR and MyRight, we’ve been able to train teachers and influence decision-makers, so that now sign language is part of the education system.
Young people who had been to school started making demands
The sign language gradually became the mother tongue for deaf persons, which improved deaf children’s results in school. The problem was that the special schools only continued up to Year six, after which the children had to stop their education.
– But the new generation of children emerging from the school system were more educated and started making their own demands, he explains, turning to Ivonne Lorena Morales Ruiz, a young girl sitting next to him.
– ANSNIC is like my second family, says Ivonne Morales. And yes, we didn’t want to finish school so early. That’s why we asked the older people in the organisation to help us fight so that we could continue at another school.
In 2004, the demands of the students were listened to, and the decision was taken that the Bello Horizonte school would accept deaf students.
– Initially, the teachers were nervous and concerned, but the students were able to continue their education thanks to the sign language interpreters, says Javier.
– We students were also worried to begin with, adds Ivonne. The new school set much higher standards than before and the exams were really difficult.SDR
Students helped teachers to adapt their methods
The deaf students taught the teachers how quickly they could speak, so that the sign language interpreters could keep up. They also asked the teachers to write more of what they said on the board. As the teachers changed their way of working, the results of the deaf students also improved. Javier and Ivonne both believe that most teachers have worked hard to find teaching methods that work for different individuals.
– We quickly realised that we needed a much greater vocabulary in order to follow the lessons, says Ivonne.
Most deaf children in Nicaragua have no access to the internet at home and family members are rarely good enough at sign language to help with homework. ANSNIC, which has always had a major focus on educational issues, therefore arranged for the students to study at the organisation in the morning and go to school in the afternoon. At ANSNIC, the students received help with their homework, and together they built up a brand new library. They also gradually developed the vocabulary so that it met the needs of students.
Sign language becomes officially recognised
Javier believes it is important to understand that sign language is an important part of the deaf students’ education.
– Through our strategic advocacy work, in 2009 we succeeded in getting sign language recognised as an official language in Nicaragua, he says proudly.
As such, sign language is now recognised as the first language of deaf persons.
– This has made it possible for the Education Ministry to use our work in support of their work. The Education Ministry is legally responsible for coordinating the national sign language council. Through this, we can now work together to spread sign language across the whole of Nicaragua, says Javier.
ANSNIC has fought to make the law a reality, and today there is an annual budget to ensure compliance with the law.
Next step – training to be teachers
When the first wave of students graduated from upper secondary school, the fight began for them to be able to attend teacher training college.
– We wanted the opportunity to make use of all the new teaching methods we’d developed with the teachers at Bello Horizonte, and so help the next generation of deaf people, says Ivonne.
Two years ago, 29 students were allowed to begin studying pedagogy at university. And so the process began again. The lecturers spoke too quickly and the deaf students had to explain which teaching methods work for them.
– The methodology is now slowly being developed jointly by the teachers and students. Once we’ve completed a term, we go through suggested changes and improvements together, says Ivonne.
Since the students identify a great deal with the teacher, Ivonne feels it can be a little tricky when you have a hearing teacher teaching a deaf person. According to her, this is why it is so important that deaf persons are able to train as teachers, so they can be involved in developing integrated education.
– Going to school and learning new things is vital in enabling us deaf persons to take part in society and help to bring about change, continues Ivonne. Studying awakens all sorts of exciting things in a person. And you can then take these ideas into other parts of your life, for example here in this organisation. Organising ourselves the way we have, it’s like we’ve learned twice as much, she says, smiling.
On the roof of the covered courtyard, all the members have written their names. Ivonne looks happy when she adds that her studies have made her more independent and improved her quality of life. She is clear that ANSNIC has a great deal of work still to do concerning deaf person’s inclusion in the labour market, but the most important point is getting children and young people to understand that they have to study to get a job.
After many years of support from SDR and MyRight, the project with ANSNIC has now concluded and the organisation is able to stand on its own two feet. ANSNIC has become a recognised player that is involved in influencing social development.
– The partnership with SDR has meant so much, says Javier. Their advice on how we should develop our organisation and our own sign language has really helped us to be creative and to appreciate what we can achieve here in Nicaragua. It’s been an excellent partnership, with SDR helping us to become self-sufficient and to take ownership of our own process, he concludes.