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Deaf returned Peace Corps volunteers share experiences at Smithsonian Folklife Festival

July 16, 2011
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Five deaf returned Peace Corps volunteers presented their unique perspectives and experiences as cultural ambassadors from the United States on July 1 at the Peace Porch stage, an event that took place during the recent Smithsonian Folklife Festival, held at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. by the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Panelists who shared their stories as deaf Peace Corps volunteers working with deaf people in other countries were Norma Morán (Kenya, 2000-2003), Darcy White (Kenya 2003-2005), Teresa Ezzell (Philippines, 1986-1988), Denise Brown (Saint Lucia, 1989-1991), and Erikson Young (Kenya, 2005-2007). Another panelist, who was not a volunteer but a consultant for the Peace Corps, was Frances Parsons, who worked to open doors for deaf volunteers by establishing a program in the Philippines in 1974 among numerous other countries.

In addition to the Peace Corps, this year’s Folklife Festival celebrated the rich and diverse cultures and ecosystems of Colombia and paid tribute to the musical genre of rhythm and blues. According to the Folklife Festival’s website, including the Peace Corps was a departure from past festivals, since subjects have not usually been associated with federal government agencies. However, the Smithsonian felt that including the Peace Corps, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, was a fitting tribute to its ongoing intent to “promote world peace and friendship.”

The panel discussion began with the introduction of Parsons, a member of Gallaudet’s Class of 1967 and the person credited with convincing the Peace Corps to open the door for volunteering opportunities for deaf people. When traveling and studying abroad in Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Russia, and Israel in the late 1970s, Parsons visited various schools for deaf people and realized that the students were desperately in need of improved educational opportunities and better communication skills. She was able to persuade the Peace Corps to establish a program for deaf volunteers  in the Philippines in the 1970s.

“In the Philippines, children in deaf schools were not allowed to sign,” Parsons said. “If they signed, their hands would be rapped. It broke my heart to see their damaged hands.”

When asked about their work as Peace Corps volunteers, Denise Brown, Class of 1987, said that she had to do just about everything. “I was a teacher, a teacher trainer, a sign language teacher, a summer camp coordinator,” said Brown. She added that she was voted by her fellow volunteers to be the volunteer coordinator, which was particularly satisfying since she was the only deaf person in her group.

Responding to a question about the level of difficulty in learning another sign language compared to a spoken language, White, an associate for Pew Center on the States, said, “I had a really hard time learning the sign language of Kenya. It took me three months, then I had to move to another region and-guess what?-they used a whole different sign language! I had to learn it all over again!”

Erikson Young, Class of 2003, pointed out that the American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet was very similar to that of Kenyan Sign Language, but it was still difficult to pick up because although the alphabet is similar, the signs are very different.

Brown’s experience was quite different than White’s. Since Saint Lucia deaf schools were already teaching the children Signing Exact English (SEE), it was easy for her to apply ASL to SEE, but she still wanted to experience the culture of the people and learn their language, so she looked for local sign languages.

Many of the volunteers laughed and nodded in agreement when Brown brought up a story about her students not being able to believe that she was deaf. They honestly believed that it was impossible for a white American to be deaf, and they would bang on the tables and make noise to see if she would react, but she never did. “She really is deaf!” her students would say.

Norma Morán, coordinator of the panel, who works at Gallaudet as coordinator of planning, assessment, and accreditation in the Office of Academic Quality, shared an amusing story about how in the United States, deaf people have flashing doorbells to get their attention and in Kenya, there obviously weren’t any. The Peace Corps training center assembled a car battery and lights, and then gave it to her. At first, she had no idea what it was until they told her it was her new doorbell.

Teresa Ezzell, who is publications coordinator for Gallaudet’s Enrollment Marketing Unit, commented on the close connections she formed during her time in the Philippines. Even now, after many years, she remains
in touch with her host sister, who later moved to the U.S. and attended Gallaudet.

When an audience member asked if any of the Peace Corps volunteers were ever frustrated and wanted to abandon their cause and go home, Brown responded, “In the United States, you have everything, but when you go to the other country, you have absolutely nothing. … But we handle the situation better than others, because we are used to it, even in the States. It’s easier for us to handle because we are deaf.”

This fall, the Gallaudet University Museum will present an exhibition on deaf Peace Corps volunteers and the ways their experiences are similar to, and diverge from, the experiences of hearing Peace Corps volunteers.

–Tanya Sturgis, student writer

16 July 2011

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