Building a proud Deaf community in Vanuatu

Building a proud Deaf community in Vanuatu

Brent MacPherson is a volunteer with Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) New Zealand. He’s working as Deaf Issues and Development Adviser with Sanma Frangipani Association (SFA) in Vanuatu, an organisation that supports and advocates for children with disabilities and their families.

Brent, a filmmaker, is working with Deaf people in the region, to increase awareness and opportunities for young people who all too often miss out. Brent is VSA’s first Deaf volunteer.

Can you describe what an average day at work for you at SFA may involve?

The beauty of my job is that every day is different. My primary role covers a wide range of issues relating to Deaf people and their families. It quickly became apparent Vanuatu is far behind other Pacific nations in terms of resources for Deaf people, but I’m determined to make a difference during my two-year assignment.

SFA is currently doing a major survey on Deaf people around Sanma. According to the survey, most Deaf children have had to pull out of school, largely because teachers are not trained to teach Deaf children using sign language. This is just one example of what we need to address.

Former VSA volunteer Jacqui Iseli left behind a dictionary of Vanuatu Sign Language – do you have a sense of what kind of difference that has made for the organisation since she left in 2013?

Jacqui developed an amazing dictionary of Deaf ni-Vanuatu family signs. It’s the best resource (and probably the only one!) that is available for everyone to use, particularly for families.

It’s difficult to measure the kind of difference this resource is making. People need to understand that a sign language is a valid language that has a different set of grammatical rules. Sign languages are rich visual languages used by Deaf people around the world to communicate. There will need to be extensive education for the community before they can understand the huge benefit of Vanuatu Sign Language.

A big part of SFA’s work is not just supporting people with disabilities, but advocating for their rights and raising awareness, which is something you’ve done through film and drama – are you using your production background there, too?

I firmly believe that producing documentaries and/or educational videos is a useful tool to highlight significant issues that are affecting the Deaf community in Pacific nations. For example, I produced a documentary, The Forgotten People, about the Deaf community in Solomon Islands.

Every Deaf person here in Vanuatu who has watched the documentary has been so absorbed that they won’t blink their eyes. They seem to be fascinated with the number of Deaf Solomon Islanders using sign language. It is important for them to see that “I’m not the only Deaf person in the world”.

Is there a Deaf community in Vanuatu?

Unfortunately, in Sanma, to my knowledge, there is no Deaf community. This surprised me when I arrived in Luganville. Initially I thought there has to be at the very least an “underground” Deaf community where they can sign in private without the public seeing them. I was wrong! Even if Deaf people live or work only
a few minutes’ walk apart, they rarely meet. I think this is largely due to lack of Deaf pride and confidence in using sign language in public.

It is critical for Deaf people to get together on a regular basis to allow their confidence to grow and Vanuatu Sign to flourish. SFA arranged our first Deaf gathering in February and it was fantastic, especially for mothers of Deaf children. It was an amazing and emotional experience watching them talk.

New Zealand could be doing more in terms of rights and recognition for people with differences and disabilities – what are the extra barriers in Vanuatu?

There is a severe lack of awareness relating to generic Deaf issues in Vanuatu. There are no interpreters to bridge between Deaf people and the wider community or the government. Deaf people are almost completely marginalised in the community. They have no voice.

There are also many barriers that are affecting Deaf people and their families. One of the biggest issues is the cost of transport to allow Deaf people and the family to meet regularly. Deaf communities in developed countries have rapidly strengthened largely due to technology, better education, and having more qualified sign language interpreters available.

Education for Deaf children is a huge concern for me personally. There is virtually nothing available for Deaf children to access education the same as their hearing peers.

When you work with children and their families, it must be incredibly satisfying to see the difference your support makes – has there been anything that has stood out as a proud moment, or that’s surprised you?

It’s enormously satisfying to work with families of Deaf children. It’s my favourite part of the job. Sadly, many parents have received no early intervention support from service providers or Government funding when their child is confirmed Deaf.

However, when they ask me questions about their Deaf child, it is really satisfying to see happiness in their eyes, knowing their child will be perfectly fine as long as he/she has access to sign language at all times. One particular story will always be in my heart:

One parent asked me if it’s okay for her 13-year-old Deaf son to ride a bike. The parents were worried that their son could get injured because he is Deaf. My response was very direct “of course he can, without any problems”. Subsequently, the young boy started saving money for his very first bike. He went to the local bike shop to find out how much it costs and drew a picture of the bike he likes. He chose the cheapest bike to buy as he thought it would be quicker to save for. But, his parents decided to buy the most expensive bike and their son was overjoyed. He now rides his bike with a sense of freedom for the first time in his life.

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