Friday, February 24, 2012

Educating the Deaf in PNG

Callan Services worker examines girl
--courtesy of Callan Services
 We hear little about the world of deaf and hard and hearing in Papua New Guinea. In recent times I was contacted by an old friend and colleague, Steven Wawaf Labuan. I was thrilled with the contact after so many years. Wawaf, as I had known him, was teaching linguistics as a tutor at the University of Papua New Guinea before he returned to the Morobe province.

The first thought I had was that Wawaf had completed a book of poems chronicalling a bohemian life outside the corridors of high learning in the great grassland of Markham Valley. That was possible, rememberingWawaf as that radical poet willing to recite nationalisticpoems along side those streect preachers at the crowded Boroko commercial center.

But not so, I would soon discover several emails later. Steven Wawaf Labuan is a different kind of poet altogether. He is someone who is more interested in working with teaching language to the deaf and hard of hearing children in the Markham Valley. Equiped with his linguistic training at UPNG Wawaf found himself involved with this important mission to teach the special group of children in Papua New Guinea.

He took the time to educate me on how he and others like Sylvia Yawingu of the Momase Regional Office for the Callan Services are doing to assist in the language development of this special group of Papua New Guineans. Special Education agencies like the Callan Services and the National Department of Education Special Education Division have been working very hard to identify children with disabilities and aid their improvement before sending them off to mainstream schools where they join other normal children learn the same curriculum in the same class.

Children who are deaf (CWAD) are categorized in two groups: (1) those who were born totally without the hearing sense—that is those who are profoudly deaf, and (2) those who lost hearing sense some time after birth. For those children who are born without hearing, normal child development processes for them are delayed for more than a thousand hours or so, so that what a normal child processes in an instant moment, a child without hearing processes several times later through exposure, or not at all, without exposure.

In developed countries such disabilities are quickly identified and treated right after birth compared to developing countries. In PNG identification and treatment are slow. Usually, mothers of children who are deaf are the first to identify the disability and would normally treat it by communicating with their children through natural sign language and gestures. School age children with hearing difficulties are diagnosed and treated much later in their lives.

With the help of the Callan Services, the special education branch of the Catholic Church in Wewak significant number of children have been identified and assisted. Through their program on deaf units these special children are rehabilitated to comparable status as those with hearing senses. The challenges the Callan Services have are many, but two important ones are the absence of a standard handbook of signs for the complete sign wordlist in PNG, especially in Tokpisin and the absence of a sign language dictionary based on the handbook of word signs.

Steven Wawaf and Sylvia Yawingu are pioneering innovative linguistic approaches to teaching and learning English as a second language for children who are deaf. Three methods used in special education programs are (1) the sound-vibration/feeling-detection device for language learning, (2) oral phonetics and speech production/acquisition, and (3) English comprehension through Trans-phonemic Bridge. According to their report, Sylvia Yawingu and Wawaf Labuan have seen great success in their methods of teaching deaf and children with loss of hearing.

Further research and trial of the methods are currently in progress at the Callan Services Institute in Wewak. The innovative method of teaching and learning English by children who are deaf is an exciting development initiative. The bridge for successful English comprehension suggested for children who are deaf is the trans-phonemic bridge approach that Sylvia and Steven Wawaf developed. Conclusive results before the end of the year will confirm and validate the methods developed by these Papua New Guineans in their mission to help a special group of our people.

I could not help but relate the PNG experience to the birth of the Nicaraguan Sign Language. In 1980s deaf children and adolescents in Nicaragua were brought together in schools. They created a new sign language as a result of the Sandinista revolution in 1979. In their book How English Works, Anne Curzan and Michael Adams, explain that in “the 1980s the first schools for the deaf were opened in Managua, and adolescents from around the country were brought to the school. Within a very short period of time, the teenagers were communicating with each other using a combination of the home signs that different students had brought with them, along with the signs they created. It was, from all reports, a signed pidgin. The teachers, with very little training in the teaching of the Deaf, were using primarily signed Spanish with the students (despite the fact that the students had had no prior exposure to Spanish), which seems to have had little effect on the communicative system that they developed.” The children in Nicaragua had given birth to a new language called Idioma de Signos Nicarguense (ISN) or Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL). The NSL shares grammatical features with other creoles and other sign languages even though the children did not have access to other languages.

In PNG we might also a unique PNG sign language develop because of our multilingual communities interacting with each other alongside the use of English with creolized pidgins and vernaculars. This sign language unique to PNG will depend on the kind of research and observations carried out at this time.

I have my hats off for Papua New Guineans like Steven Wawaf Labuan, Sylvia Yawingu and other hard working teachers and volunteers of special education programs for the deaf and hard of hearing children in Papua New Guinea.

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