Two specialists from the USA and Canada, Rachel Miles and Rebekah Schumacher from SIL International, have spent the past few weeks in Port Vila working on several projects to support Ni-Vanuatu deaf people.
Miles and Schumacher are experts in sign language and education for deaf students. They have been supporting the work of Angelinah Eldad Vira from the Curriculum Development Unit (CDU) of the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) on the creation of a digital dictionary with signs gathered from adults in each province of Vanuatu.
Deaf adults live in many different villages and haven’t had the opportunity to interact with each other, each has their own unique way of signing with their families and communities. The dictionary project is gathering all of the different signs into one place and it will then be a resource for organisations working with the deaf.
Miles and Schumacher also spent two weeks at Pikinini Playtime working with their deaf students and special needs teachers. With seven deaf students enrolled, this is the first time a group of deaf children are being educated together, creating the perfect conditions for a full and shared sign language to develop – Vanuatu Sign Language (Storian wetem han blong Vanuatu) – as they interact and learn. As part of her PhD studies at the University of California, San Diego, Miles is documenting the sign language that is emerging at the school. The school aims to have all children and teachers learn some sign language so that the deaf students aren’t isolated, but part of the larger ‘signing’ community. The deaf students enter the school with little ability to communicate, but they quickly begin using the new sign language and then are able to learn, play and make friends. Miles and Schumacher hope to continue to support the efforts of Pikinini Playtime and the MoET with the creation of sign language books and other language development initiatives.
Schumacher said, “Over the time that we spent here at Pikinini Playtime, we’ve had the great privilege of building relationships with the children through learning their signs and encouraging them to share and express themselves through their own language.
One might expect that a deaf child is often left alone by his peers, but this is not the case at Pikinini Playtime. The deaf students are running around with all the rest, using signs and gestures to play together with their friends, hearing and deaf alike.”
The Sign Language program at Pikinini Playtime started with one teacher and four students spending a year at the Fiji Gospel School for the Deaf (GSD). Tony Batten, the Business Manager of Pikinini Playtime said, “We will ever be indebted to the staff of GSD and the sponsors who made this program possible. Through their generosity we were able to train one teacher and start four boys on the pathway to being fluent in sign language.
“Now we have teachers in each classroom able to sign with the deaf students. Our Key Teacher in Special Needs, Edikiel Haisoch, is doing an amazing job. She is almost solely responsible for this initiative and is now achieving what will be a first for Vanuatu, deaf children, despite their disability, being able to learn alongside their friends. Together we are demonstrating that we can help to overcome the challenges faced by deaf people in Vanuatu.”
In summing up their time at the school Miles said, “It is so exciting to see the work at Pikinini Playtime. As the children and teachers are signing together, they are actually creating a language. This new sign language will be a gift to all the people of Vanuatu.”