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Deaf Students Live in a Silent World

In Phnom, Penh, Cambodia, hard of hearing and deaf students often are ignored or face ridicule in school. Maryknoll Lay Missioners, through the Deaf Development Programme (DDP) assist hundreds of deaf students so they can succeed in the silent world they face.

DDP student Sambeth uses sign language to deliver a speech during his graduation standing next to his peer.

Sambath was chosen to give a speech at his graduation, sharing what he has accomplished at DDP.

The DDP is a 2 year school teaching Cambodian Sign Language. In an optional 3rd year, deaf students are able to learn specific job skills. Sambeth is deaf and a student at DDP. He attended school when he was younger, but came home in tears from the bullies. Eventually, he stopped going. When he entered the DDP as a 17 year old, he had his first formal experience with sign language. Today he is learning how to be a barber and hopes to open a barber shop in his family’s house. He admits, it “will be nice to be able to help support my family.”

Maryknoll Lay Missioners Julie, Fr. Charlie and Kylene pose for a photo

Julie Lawler and Father Charlie Dittmeier during Deaf Week Celebrations at DDP in September 2022. Fellow lay missioner Kylene Fremling (right) also helped with the activities that day.

Educate, Advocate

Staffed by Maryknoll Lay Missioners and other community members, the DDP not only serves the hard of hearing population directly, but also advocates and raises awareness for this ostracized population. Cambodian culture does not lend itself well to those with disabilities. Originally, one of many difficulties was the lack of an official Cambodian Sign Language. The efforts of the DDP were able to help develop, standardize, and promote the new language.

The Work Continues

Unfortunately there is much more work to do. Maryknoll Lay Missioner, Fr. Charlie Dittmeier, said: “They have no sign language, no spoken language, no written language.” When the youth arrive at DDP, they “are starting at square one.” Before she was a Maryknoll Lay Missioner, Julie Lawler, taught deaf students in Austin, Texas. Recently, she concluded her first contract with MKLM. Julie plans to renew her time with MKLM and return to the DDP. “Our graduates still face isolation when they go home to their families since those families don’t know sign language. They still face discrimination when they start looking for ways to earn a living. They can face violence from neighbors who take advantage of the vulnerable.”

Please join MKLM and the DDP by praying for Cambodia’s deaf students and their families. The DDP’s goal is to witness the Cambodian deaf and hard of hearing population be accepted, respected and included in all aspects of their society.

Deaf students sit at their desks in a DDP classroom.

Joe Weyers
Joe Weyers is the digital marketing consultant for Maryknoll Lay Missioners. He is based in Ames, Iowa.