Charlie Dittmeier estimates that there’s around 51,000 profoundly deaf people living in Cambodia. “And we’ve worked with only around 2,000 of those since we started in 1997,” he says.
Charlie works for the Deaf Development Programme here in Cambodia, run by global Catholic mission organisation, Maryknoll. They educate over-16s and young adults, teach them Cambodian sign language, give them vocational training, keep a registry for the deaf and perhaps most importantly of all, help them to feel part of a community.
Finding the deaf community
The problem is, there isn’t really such a thing as a deaf community in Cambodia. Often those still out there on their own won’t know what’s happened to them, why they can’t communicate with others, or that there are others just like them. Deaf people living in rural provinces can be extremely isolated and even branded as ‘mad’ by their village. Some may have never spoken to their parents, or may not even be written in the family book – treated, quite literally, as a non-person.
This isolation can lead, inevitably, to them being more susceptible to abuse, exploitation and human trafficking:
“The deaf population are extremely vulnerable," Charlie explains. "They are the perfect victim, because they can’t speak, they have no social skills, they’re isolated. If someone shows an interest in them and wants to be their friend, it may be the first time in over 20 years."
“One lady in our care from the North-East of Cambodia was pregnant but couldn’t tell anyone how it had happened – possibly didn’t even know herself. We took photos of her back to her home town to ask if anyone knew her, and someone recognised her. Eventually, we found out a foreigner had been living with her but had taken off one day and left her.”
With this in mind, an important part of the DDP’s work is to make sure that deaf people get access to social services like counselling and practical help for those who have experienced such abuse.
Joining the discussion
Signs are looking better for the deaf population of Cambodia, however.
Khmer sign language itself is still a young one. It was only created in 1997, along with the first deaf school, by international NGO Krousar Thmey - an organisation which covers a large part of all the deaf education available for school-age children in Cambodia.
Both DDP and Krousar Thmey sit on a Committee aiming to promote the use of the CSL in this country. And just this year, a focus group was held in Phnom Penh with signing participants from DDP, Krousar Thmey and EPIC Arts, a performance-based NGO for deaf and people with disabilities which Chab Dai has worked with a number of times in the past. This was the first session of its kind, brainstorming the challenges and rights of deaf people, from voting in elections to national identity cards.
Recent years have also seen the first hearing-impaired and deaf students go through higher education – an option previously thought impossible by parents and students alike.
Enjoying a more social and integrated life, even just at classroom-level, can make a huge impact on deaf individuals, Charlie says.
“When they realise they’re in a room with other deaf people, other people they can talk to, they just explode - they’re so happy.”
Blog post by Laura Gavin. Photo by Karl Grobl.