Deaf Panamanian parliamentarian visits KDESDiego Lombana, the only deaf parliamentarian in Latin America, visited with a Kendall Demonstration Elementary School (KDES) fourth grade class while on a delegation visit from Panama to Gallaudet University.
As an elected member of the Asemblea Nacional (National Assembly), Lombana has supported legislation to promote the recognition and use of Panamanian sign language. Attitudes towards the abilities of deaf people and people with disabilities in Panama are slowly changing in appositive way thanks in large part to Lombana's participation in the government. Lombana came to Gallaudet on November 3 as part of delegation including the Panamanian ambassador to the U.S., the Honorable Mario Jaramillo, to meet with Gallaudet University president T. Alan Hurwitz to sign of memorandum of understanding between the University and Panama. The memorandum calls for the establishment of a new international center in Panama to promote the advancement of higher education, teaching, learning, research and services for deaf and hard of hearing students and professionals from Panama and Latin America. The center will be located in Panama City, Panama.
This was not Lombana's first visit to the University. He had visited Gallaudet and KDES with his mother when he was just five years old. The experience of seeing so many deaf people freely communicating inspired him to return to his country and meet with members of parliament to encourage them to officially recognize Panamanian sign language. The officials agreed, and assigned a legislator to Lombana's cause. By the time Lombana turned seven years old, a law was passed for the recognition of Panamanian sign language, informally referred to as "Diego's Law." It was not until Lombana himself become a government official some 20 years later that the law has become more actively used and enforced.
The students in Francisca Rangel's American Sign Language class had no idea about the larger diplomatic mission of Lombana's visit to Gallaudet. Instead, they were intrigued to learn more about this 26-year old deaf man from the Central American country of Panama who came to visit their classroom with his hearing mother and younger brother.
Lombana settled easily into one of the classroom chairs set in a semi-circle of desks and began engaging with the students, showing a map of where he was from and explaining about his job in the government, and life as a deaf person in Panama. The students leaned in eagerly, waving their hands to get his attention and to ask him questions. Lombana is used to finding creative ways to communicate across many languages. Deaf from an illness in his toddler years, Lombana's mother tirelessly advocated for her son to learn Panamanian sign language, spoken Spanish, and written English and French. So, in communicating with the students, Lombana signed in Panamanian sign language which his mother translated into spoken English to an interpreter who translated to ASL, assisted by a Spanish language translator Silvia Golocovsky, coordinator of multi-cultural student services. When the students asked Lombana questions, the whole process was reversed. It was complicated, but the fourth graders kept up with the flow.
The students immediately connected to Lombana being from a Latino background, one student mentioned that her Mom and Dad were from Mexico. Lombana shared that the day of his visit, November 3, marked the celebration of the Independence of Panama like the Americans celebrate the Fourth of July. The students were curious about how the event was celebrated? Did they have fireworks? No, Lombana said, but "we do have huge parades and people dress up in fancy costumes representing different parts of the country." They asked him about sign language in Panama. He showed them some common signs like "Mother" being a pat on the cheek, and "woman" signed with a tug on the earlobe, and the sign for "Panama" where the two hands come together like a gate swinging in and out to signify the Panama Canal.
Lombana travels the world advocating for organizations supporting people with disabilities and health issues, in addition to his government job, he is pursuing a master's degree in computer communication at the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá. His first ambition in life was to be a pilot (which he still wants to pursue), his second to become a priest (which he decided not to pursue), his third ambition was to become a politician (which he is), and his fourth? Well, he said, some day he might run for president of Panama.
As he left the KDES classroom, he turned and waved to the students and signed, "I will be coming back."
- www.gallaudet.edu/MOUwithPanama.xml - Gallaudet's Video Services has produced a two-minute webstory of the signing ceremony
- http://video.telemetro.com/video/Diego-Lombana/375cfd9ede156d2a85279dd534553f2a -Diego Lombana using Panamanian Sign language, Cara a Cara Interview (in Spanish and Panamanian Sign Language)