Learning sign language opens new worlds in Cambodia's Deaf community - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Summer 2021 newsletter


Julie Lawler, Cambodia


A group of DDP students working together on a class project. Photo by Lay SreyTin


Sign Language is the noblest gift God has given deaf people.
—George Veditz (visionary leader and activist in the Deaf community)


This year, you have helped 32 deaf people at the Deaf Development Programme (DDP) from all across Cambodia either learn language for the first time and/or continue to develop their fluency in Cambodian Sign Language. The DDP students received an education with a basic literacy and math focus and, in addition, were also able to gain friendships and a crucial support system with other deaf people. Thank you! We could not accomplish our goals without the support and contributions from you, our donors.

DDP teachers, staff and students joined forces to cook a traditional dessert — rolled dough served in coconut cream. Photo by Julie Lawler

I know it is hard to imagine having no language until you are 16 or 25 years old, so to paint this picture for you, I will share some interactions I was able to witness that shows the transformation of one deaf student at DDP. The impact and the ability to see actual results of how donors’ money changes the lives of deaf people in Cambodia takes time to unfold. But in small ways, I was able to see your impact in just a few interactions with a young deaf Cambodian named Sambath.

Sambath came with his parents to have an interview to see if they wanted to send their son to DDP. The interview happened in our DDP office, and basic questions were exchanged. What is taught? Where will their son sleep? How many boys/girls are there? Are there problems with bullying? Etc.

As I watched the interview unfold, I saw Sambath raise his eyes in curiosity as he watched Sophy, the Education Program Manager. Sophy was interpreting the discussion she was having with his parents in Khmer into Cambodian Sign Language (CSL) so that the deaf staff and myself could understand. When her hands were moving and sharing the message with us in CSL, Sambath was eyeing us and taking in this interaction with full interest.

He was timid, shy and had made himself look as small as possible by slouching in his chair, but when he saw us signing for those few minutes, he was giving us his full attention by sitting up in his chair, raising his eyes and giving us direct eye contact.

From the interview, we learned that he went to a government school for a few years but left due to being bullied by other students. His parents were eager for him to continue his education, but nervous about having another negative experience. At DDP, Sambath would not be the only deaf student, he wouldn’t be picked on for being deaf or not being able to talk. So his parents were hopeful. In the end, Sambath started school at DDP in the 2021 school year and started to experience learning as a deaf individual and learning sign language for the first time.

On his first day of class, other students entered the classroom with confidence and familiarity while Sambath continued to be timid, shy and kept his eyes down. This school year was different from others since Covid-19 suspended their school year last year, these students came back with some familiarity of expectations, exposure to CSL and had some signing ability.

DDP students exercise before morning classes start. Photo by Lay SreyTin.

It was on the second day of class, when Sambath got his sign name. This is the initial way of welcoming him into the Deaf community and a way of letting other people know how to address him when using CSL. In deaf culture, deaf individuals are given a name sign to identify themselves in the Deaf community, just as hearing parents welcome a child into their family by giving their child a name that they can call them.

I know Sambath is just one example of how a life can change with the money we receive at DDP.

Thank you for your continuing support of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, DDP and the deaf individuals we serve here in Cambodia. Because of you, they are given an opportunity to learn language, receive an education and develop lifelong friendships but most of all you have given them a pathway to becoming a contributing members of society and allowing them to participate in life more fully than they were able to before.

Julie Lawler
Julie Lawler is a deaf education teacher with the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.