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Gallaudet alumna helps set course for deaf education in Bhutan

Image: Outside the deaf school in Bhutan.

Outside the deaf school in Bhutan.

Image: Students using Bhutanese Sign Language.

Students using Bhutanese Sign Language.

Image: Dr. Alim Chandani, PhD '13, chatting with the Bhutanese students.

Dr. Alim Chandani, PhD '13, chatting with the Bhutanese students.

Image: Sarah Houge, '10, and Chandani wearing traditional Bhutanese clothing.

Sarah Houge, '10, and Chandani wearing traditional Bhutanese clothing.

Sarah Houge, '10, arrived in Bhutan in August 2013 at the perfect time of year. It was toward the end of the rainy monsoon season and the sky was blue, dotted with fast-moving puffy clouds. Houge considered herself lucky to be in this isolated country in the Eastern Himalaya Mountains. That is because Bhutan, a land-locked country approximately the size of Kansas, limits the amount of visitors admitted yearly. The country, which borders India and China, has a strict tourism policy, which only allows visitors as either guests of the government or through an approved travel program.

Houge was not in Bhutan for vacation; she was there to work. She graduated from Gallaudet in 2010 with an M.A. in international development and discovered a prime opportunity to apply her degree and her background in deaf education in Bhutan as one of the first deaf individuals to work as a consultant for United Nations Children's Fund (which is still known by the acronym UNICEF).  This once in a lifetime opportunity would soon make an impact on her life in many aspects.

Prior to her departure, Houge researched facts about Bhutan but could not gain a full grasp of what her life would be like there as a UNICEF consultant, with such limited information available about the country's deaf education program online.

"I did not know any Bhutanese Sign Language prior to the trip but learned approximately 200 signs after arriving to Bhutan," Houge explained. "Communication was a combination of ASL, Bhutanese Sign, gestures, written English, and even some Auslan (Australian Sign Language) as there was a volunteer from Australia working at the deaf program when I was there."

Deaf education in Bhutan is still in the developmental stage and is operated within a hearing school, according to Houge. The number of students in the deaf program has steadily increased, however, in the past decade from four to 77 students.

"It is an emerging field as there is no special education training yet and Bhutan has very limited resources," she said.

For her position with UNICEF, Houge began at the Deaf Education Unit (DEU) located in Drukgyel Lower Secondary School (DLSS) in Paro, Bhutan.  DEU is a deaf program within a mainstream school, the only one in the entire country. There, Houge collected data through personal interviews, observations, and through research of history, and survey responses. 

For the second half of her assignment, Houge was stationed at the UNICEF office in Thimphu, Bhutan's capitol, and worked closely with UNICEF's Education team, the Ministry of Education, and various stakeholders with the Deaf Education Unit. Through her work, she gathered information and recommendations from all stakeholders and eventually developed a Road Map for the future of deaf education in Bhutan.

"We used a table type of system with a timeline, stakeholders that would be involved, resources needed, tasks, and so forth," said Houge. "At first some people were not so sure about establishing a stand-alone deaf school with specialized training and resources, mostly due to limited knowledge and understanding in the field of deaf education. After I shared research studies and information, they were convinced."

Houge continued, "Being from the U.S. where we've had an established educational system for over a century, it was absolutely fascinating to see a very young deaf education system (10 years old) and the emerging deaf community in Bhutan," said Houge. "The impact on my work in Bhutan was somewhat unexpected. I did not realize that I would be one of the first deaf individuals to work with the educational program."

Houge served as a role model not only to the deaf Bhutanese students, but also to the teachers.

"Simply being there as an educated and successful deaf adult was exposure in itself. Many of the teachers commented about how happy they were having a deaf consultant come work with them because they felt my information and experience was more authentic. They were very open and wanted to learn as much as they could from me," said Houge.
 
With the collaboration of the DEU, UNICEF, and Ministry of Education, Houge was able to present a compelling proposal dedicated to establishing a stand-alone deaf school to the Bhutanese government. After six weeks of intensive discussion, an approval was granted. The stand-alone program will be devoted to providing specialized training in the deaf education field, as well developing Bhutanese Sign Language.

"Additional programs include vocational training and deaf awareness campaigns, as well as developing interpreter training for future mainstreaming options at the hearing school where DEU is located," Houge explained.

Houge's trip to Bhutan impacted both her personal and professional lives. Her experience enabled her to branch out in her career path.

"Bhutan is simply an amazing place [with a] beautiful environment and wonderful people," Houge reminisced. "Working as a consultant for UNICEF and having such a positive experience has encouraged me to seek more consulting projects/assignments, and also to do more evaluation work."

Gallaudet's International Development Program played an integral role in preparing Houge for her duties as a UNICEF consultant. The program equipped her with knowledge about project design, working with a variety of people, and more.

"The research and evaluation course specifically helped me through this process by learning about the different methods and types of research and evaluation. I applied everything I learned in that course while working in Bhutan," said Houge.

Houge plans to continue working with organizations in other countries and apply the knowledge gained from her Bhutan experience to future endeavors. She plans to work with the Liberia National Association of the Deaf in early 2014.

While in Bhutan, through the Ministry of Education, Special Education Needs, Houge invited her good friend, Dr. Alim Chandani, a specialist in Gallaudet University's Department of Student Success to visit and assist during her classroom visits. It was an extraordinary opportunity for Chandani, who graduated from Gallaudet with Ph.D. in administration and supervision in 2013, because he had a lifelong dream to visit Bhutan after reading a book about Bhutan named "Beyond the Sky and Earth."

During their stay, Houge and Chandani interacted closely with the Bhutanese students outside and inside the classroom. "In one of the classrooms, where I had the opportunity to introduce myself and my background, the students had lots of questions: where I was from, how did I become successful, how I feel about being deaf and so forth. It was surreal for them to believe that they could also succeed and be able to accept and be proud of their deafness," Chandani recalled.  

Houge and Chandani also wanted the students to be proud and celebrate their country's history and culture. They decided to show the Bhutanese teachers various ways to conduct hands-on activities for the students that would align with their beliefs. To this end, they created a version of the reality television game show, "Amazing Race," to enable the students to learn more about the rich history of temples and monuments in their area.

"Three deaf teacher assistants were involved who we hoped would use this for their students in future. They didn't know how important the specific temples were and the stories behind them," Chandani said.

Houge and Chandani left Bhutan at the end of September with a newfound perspective and love for Bhutan and the deaf community as a whole. They both remarked that they hope to return to Bhutan someday. When asked what she would challenge others to do after reading about her experience in Bhutan, Houge replied, "To truly appreciate what we have here in the USA as deaf Individuals and as a community. I believe that it is our responsibility as deaf individuals to work with other deaf people all over the world to improve human rights and gain better access to high quality education and interpreting services. We are all part of one family and can really connect and work together for a better future of our global deaf community!"

**This spring, Chandani is teaching capstone course GSR 300 which gives students the opportunity to learn about Bhutan's culture and create a social enterprise training project for deaf young adults in the country. The GSR students will create a mini-fundraising event at the end of the semester to support their final projects. The class is working closely with the Bhutan Foundation in Washington, D.C., as well as Ashoka, a network of social entrepreneurs around the world, to get expert insight on the development of a training model to assist deaf youth in building sustainable lives.

--By Mary Harman

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