Thirty years ago, there was no developed sign language in Nicaragua. There were a number of homemade characters that were developed within family and circle of friends, but most words had to be spelled using the alphabet. Deaf students were not allowed to use sign language in school but were to learn to read on the lips. The change began with a group of friends who had a common vision to change the situation of the deaf in Nicaragua. Today, the first deaf students go to university.
I'm visiting ANSNIC's house in the middle of the Nicaraguan summer. In the shade of the small veranda, school desks are set up along the walls. We enter the house and pass a couple of rooms where there are pictures of different sign language signs and posters from various campaigns that ANSNIC has run over the years. On one of the doors we pass it says "Library". We come out to a courtyard that is half covered by a roof.
In the sun along the high wall, orange trees grow. In the ceiling hangs something that looks like lampshades to dry and a little further away I see a door that is open to something that seems to be a workshop. We sit down in the shade under the roof and Javier López Gómez, who is chairman of ANSNIC, offers freshly picked oranges.
Collaboration with SDR was the beginning of something new
-At the time when we were still a loosely composed 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 says. She helped us get in touch with the deaf in Sweden.
Together with Anders Andersson from SDR - the Swedish Association of the Deaf, Javier and his friends began to develop ideas on how to improve the situation for the deaf in Nicaragua. Through SDR and MyRight, Javier had the opportunity to study for ten months in Sweden. It turned out to be an important experience for the development of deaf culture in Nicaragua.
-In Sweden I learned a lot. I gained experience of how the education for the deaf was structured and I learned how the deaf in Sweden worked to develop their language and develop a sign language lexicon, says Javier.
A language of its own
When Javier returned to Nicaragua, he worked hard to pass on what he had learned in Sweden to his deaf friends. Together they formed the organization ANSNIC and started various activities.
- In Sweden I had learned Swedish sign language. It made me realize that it was important for our Nicaraguan identity that we develop our own sign language based on our own culture. As we started to develop our own lexicon, we could also start helping and supporting deaf young people so that they could pass school, says Javier.
Deaf children went to special schools together with children with various disabilities.
- We were pioneers in training teachers of sign language, says Javier. Through our projects with SDR and MyRight, we have been able to train teachers and influence decision-makers so that sign language today is part of the teaching.
The students helped the teachers to change their pedagogy
Sign language gradually became the mother tongue of the deaf, which improved the children's results in school. The problem was that the special schools only had teaching up to year six, after which the children had to leave school.
- But the new generation of children who graduated from school had to learn more and began to make their own demands, he says and turns to Ivonne Lorena Morales Ruiz, a young girl sitting next to him.
"ANSNIC is like my second family," says Ivonne Morales. "Yes, we did not want to leave school so early," says Ivonne. Therefore, we asked the seniors in the organization to help us fight so that we could continue in another school.
In 2004, the students' demands were finally listened to and it was decided that the Bello Horizonte school would accept deaf students.
- At first, the teachers were scared and worried, but thanks to the sign language interpreters, the students were able to complete the training, says Javier.
- We students were also scared in the beginning, Ivonne adds. In the new school, much higher demands were made than before and the tests were very difficult.
The deaf students had to teach the teachers at what speed they could speak so that the sign language interpreters would have time to interpret. They also asked the teachers to write more of what they said on the board. When the teachers changed their way of working, the results of the deaf students also improved. Both Javier and Ivonne believe that most teachers have made an effort to find teaching methods that work for different individuals.
- We also quickly realized that we needed a much larger vocabulary to be able to keep up and understand the teaching, says Ivonne.
Most deaf children in Nicaragua do not have access to the Internet at home, and family members rarely know sign language so well that they can help with homework. ANSNIC, which has always worked a lot with educational issues, therefore arranged for students to study at the organization in the mornings and go to school in the afternoons. At ANSNIC, the students received homework help and together they built a completely new library. They also gradually developed the vocabulary so that it corresponded to the students' needs.
Sign language is officially recognized
Javier believes that it is important to understand that sign language is an important part of education for deaf students.
- Through our strategic advocacy work, we managed in 2009 to get sign language recognized as an official language in Nicaragua, he says proudly.
This means that sign language is today recognized as the first language of the deaf.
- It has made it possible for the Ministry of Education to have our work as support for its work. The law states that the Ministry of Education must coordinate the national sign language council. As a result, we can now work together to spread sign language throughout Nicaragua, says Javier.
ANSNIC has fought to make the law a reality and today there is an annual budget for the law to be complied with.
When the first batch of students graduated from high school, the struggle began to start at the teacher training college.
- We wanted to have the opportunity to use all the new teaching methods we had developed together with the teachers at Bello Horizonte and thus help the next generation of deaf people, says Ivonne.
Two years ago, 29 students were allowed to start studying pedagogy at the university. Then the process began again. The teachers spoke too fast and the deaf students had to explain which teaching methods work for them.
- The methodology is now being developed gradually by the teachers and students together. When we have finished a semester, we jointly review proposals for changes and improvements, says Ivonne.
Since the students identify a lot with the teacher, Ivonne thinks that it can be a bit tricky when it is a hearing teacher who teaches a deaf person. According to her, this is also why it is so important that deaf people can train as teachers and thus be involved in developing the integrated education.
- Going to school and learning new things is necessary for us who are deaf to be able to participate in society and be involved in creating change, says Ivonne. When you study, there are a lot of exciting things that are brought to life in you as an individual. Those ideas can then be taken into other parts of life, such as here to the organization. By organizing as we do here, it is as if what you have learned is doubled, she says and smiles.
On the roof of the patio, the members have written their own names. She looks happy when she adds that her studies have made her more independent and given her an increased quality of life. She believes that ANSNIC has a lot of work left in terms of the inclusion of the deaf in the labor market, but that it is first and foremost important to make children and young people understand that they must study in order to get a job.
An organization on its own two feet
After many years of support from SDR and MyRight, the project with ANSNIC has now been completed and the organization can stand on its own two feet. ANSNIC has become a recognized player that is involved and influences the development of society.
- The collaboration with SDR has meant a lot, says Javier. Their advice on how to develop our organization and our own sign language has really helped us to be creative and to arrive at what we can do here in Nicaragua. It has been a good collaboration where SDR has supported us in becoming independent and owning our own process, he concludes.