Published on 8th May 2017
This week is National Sign Language Week in New Zealand. It's a timely reminder of the struggles facing Deaf communities across the wider Pacific where we work.
Our first Deaf volunteer Brent MacPherson is 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. Our Senior Communications Adviser Sarah Barnett interviewed Brent for VSA's Vista magazine recently...
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 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”.
Have you made any connections between Deaf communities in Vanuatu and New Zealand?
Back in New Zealand, there are a lot of Deaf people who work in professional roles, particularly in the education sector. There are quite a few Deaf teachers of the Deaf and they are the most qualified people to advise teachers how to teach Deaf students in sign language. They are also experts on how to assess Deaf children's learning needs. I’m not an expert on teaching Deaf students, but I can bring in experts to arrange workshops for teachers, teacher aides and their families around the concept of teaching Deaf children.
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.
How have you found navigating life in Vanuatu?
I’ve settled in Vanuatu extremely well. Actually, I love it here! Prior to my assignment, I’d already visited many Pacific nations so I was familiar with what to expect in Luganville in terms of their culture and way of life.
On a last note, I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to VSA for providing me with an interpreter for my assignment. It allows me to do my role more effectively. Hana Maguire is not only doing a fantastic job, but has learned local Bislama language very quickly. Hana is now able to translate from Bislama to NZ Sign Language in most situations. I urge other volunteer organisations to follow suit.
Congratulations VSA for taking the lead!