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Sign language as a first language: Dreaming without fences
The classroom was silent. Apart from occasional dragging of tables and chairs, the students closely followed the teacher’s hands, as she gestured the word dream. As the only school in Bhutan for the Deaf, Wangsel Institute stands quietly within a fenced compound on the outskirts of Paro.It has now been 2 years since Tshering Choden joined the Wangsel Institute. From Trongsa and now 18 years old, Tshering was born with regular hearing ability, but after she fell severely ill in her preschool, her ability to hear started to deteriorate. She lost her hearing completely when she was in Class 8.
“I used to be able to hear and speak. Listen and talk with my friends and family. When I began to lose my hearing, going to school, attending classes and interacting with friends and teachers became very difficult. I couldn’t hear what was being taught. I told my parents that I wanted to drop out and quit school. I was frustrated with myself at that time,” signed Tshering.
Tshering’s parents and teachers insisted she stay in school. She was also part of the Special Education Needs (SEN) programme in her school, which catered to students with all forms of disabilities. In 2017, when she first heard about Wangsel Institute, she was asked to visit the school. A volunteer at the institute recommended her to join the school in Paro.
“I didn’t know any sign language before joining Wangsel. Communication for us was only pointing at things and signaling. When I came to Wangsel Institute, I learned sign language for the first six months. I was able to gradually express myself far more than I did before. It was like learning any other language. For me, it was like speaking again and I could hear others too,” signed Tshering.
Nidup joined the Wangsel Institute for the Deaf as a teacher six years ago. She learned sign-language and taught students with hearing difficulties. Since then she has under-taken the dual role of teacher-interpreter some teachers at Wangsel Institute. Although not trained professionally as sign-language interpreter, Nidup became a link between hearing individuals and the students at Wangsel. The school has classes from Pre-Primary through to Class Twelve. Apart from standardized academics, they also offer vocational classes such as painting, tailoring, furniture-making and wood-craving in their curriculum.
2020 has been extremely challenging for the teachers and students at Wangsel Institute. Online classes and virtual learning were an extremely unusual concept for the students.
“As a teacher-interpreter, we always encourage our students to have in-person, real time communication because when you are using sign language it is important to have physical human presence while conversing. But this year, we had to follow our Education in Emergency (EIE) scheme, and we were recording videos and sending them to our students. Some students did not have mobile phones, and the SEN Division under the Ministry of Education supported the purchase of these devices for our students. We had to adapt to the situation right away”, said Nidup.
“This year our students spent most of their time at home and only a few parents know very rudimentary sign language. Most are illiterate and use signals and hand pointing to communicate with their children. It can be suffocating for students not being able to talk, they might feel trapped and isolated. Children need to feel part of the social circle at home,” continued Nidup.
Tshering was in her village with her family during this time away from school. During the daytime, she helped her family with chores and found time to study and go through her lessons at night. Tshering is interested to study further and earn a degree and remembers aspiring to become a teacher before she lost her hearing. Now, she dreams to open a tailoring shop and support her family in any way she can.
“Being Deaf, our dreams may be limited and often narrow. The vocational path is perhaps the only realistic option for us to stand on our own two feet. In Bhutan, it may come as big surprise to other Bhutanese that we can complete Class 12, let alone a degree. But here at Wangsel, we have a chance to learn, communicate and interact- talk. The school is trying its very best to build our capacity every day,” signed Tshering.
“On seconds thoughts, if I wasn’t deaf, I think I may want to be a doctor, not a teacher. I am sorry, it changes. But to have a chance to study, learn new things and discover about what we want to do changes a lot I imagine. It is a privilege,” signed Tshering staring at the small fence outside.
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