All is quiet except for a groan breaking the silence and startling me back into the world of hearing. I rely on my ears to understand what is taking place, but without words my other senses begin to kick in. I watch, intrigued by the emotions.
The “speaker” is telling a story. I don’t need to hear his voice because through the flowing movement of his hands and the expressions on his face, I see a story unfolding. The people around me watch, intent on the outcome. His body moves into the story and hands go up waving in the deaf sign for clapping as the audience responds with joy. We’ve all encountered the deaf, whether a small child in a shop pulling on your pant-leg, a young person at Carrefour bagging groceries, or an elderly person begging on the corner communicating only with deep guttural sounds.
Understanding those who cannot hear is an emerging culture in Bogotá. Misguided beliefs that deaf people cannot contribute to a society are being challenged as awareness grows across all socio-economic lines. Colombian law, grounded in an all-encompassing Constitution guarantees the right of all persons, especially minors, to have access to education even if that means hiring specialized staff to teach sign language.
In Bogotá there are two schools dedicated to teaching sign language to the deaf. One school, Instituto Nuestra Señora de la Sabiduría para Sordos (Institute of Our Lady of Wisdom for the Deaf) located on the Calle 20 Sur No. 10A-51 has been at the center of a heated public debate ever since the Education Secretary of Bogotá which had been subsidizing the specialized facility with 40 percent of its operating costs decided to cancel the contract, worth some $480 million pesos, last month. Three hundred and fifty children had to be relocated to district schools and an institution which had been running for 88 years is now on the verge of closure.
The protests over the Education Secretary pulling its support of the school contrasts the efforts of the national government in developing special job incentives and programs for the deaf. The presidency has established a strict program which requires applicants to attend training, similar to a technical college, and which would make them eligible for jobs. The training course prepares those with hearing impairments to work in factories, in construction, as bakers and develop a work ethic important in being a valued employee.
Each country has its own version of sign language. Mexican sign is different than Colombian, for example, and culture is very important to each country’s development of the language. In 1996, Colombian Sign Language (Lengua de Señas Colombiana or LSC) was recognized as an official language. LSC’s origin is American Sign Language (ASL), but Colombian Sign Language has evolved, changing many signs to be more culturally relevant. For example, the Colombian sign for “chocolate” is rubbing the hands together as if frothing hot chocolate with a molinillo. It is not the same sign as in the U.S., but it makes sense here.
Signs in Colombia tend to create a picture that demonstrates a word or concept similar to the game of charades. The ASL sign for “mom” is made by placing the thumb against your chin with the hand open. In Colombia the sign looks like you are holding a baby. Although LSC is a national language, there are dialects between cities such as Cartagena and Medellín. Amanda Bloom works with the deaf in Bogotá. Out of 2 million deaf in Colombia, only 50,000 use LSC.
Because the culture is in the developing stages she says, “The most difficult thing working with the deaf here is that they are exposed to so much change that they are confused.” They rely on people coming up to them to educate them on products, appropriate prices, religion and other pieces of knowledge that hearing people understand because of the vast amounts of information we have to process and make decisions. There is a trust that is often broken as people try to take advantage of them or play on their emotions.
It takes a lot of time to develop a relationship and trust within the deaf community. Working with a group of deaf people will include a variety of levels and needs to be met. One person may be educated and employed where another person only speaks “home sign language.”
Daisy, 23, is one such person. Having attended school, but with no one trained to teach the deaf, she was simply given a notebook to copy things off the blackboard with no comprehension of how symbols combined to form words and ideas. She never learned to read or write. Daisy’s family created a combination of gestures to communicate in their own home sign language.
Amanda began her work with Daisy on the simplest thing – her name. From there she taught Daisy the alphabet just as you would teach a child. Amanda used pictures and drawings to teach abstract concepts such as emotions and ideas – forgiveness and love. “There is some benefit to this because there is less confusion in identifying personal emotions,” says Amanda, “but in the older generation there is a lot of bottled-up anger because they grew up with no way of communicating.”
Change takes time. The deaf have come a long way in the Colombian acceptance of their disability, although the further you travel from a large city the less opportunity there is to move out of generational stigmas. People like Daisy have a changed life because of a few people who cared enough to work against common public perception and offer her the opportunity of communication.