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Communicating for the first time – Nicaraguan Sign Language

Imagine that you are an expecting mother or father. After the birth of your child, the doctor tells you that your baby is completely healthy of body and mind, except for one thing: she has a condition where she will only be able to learn and speak a particular foreign language; let’s say, Urdu. If you want to be able to communicate with your child, you’ll have to learn Urdu.

After the initial shock wears off, you decide, ok, I guess I’ll learn Urdu. You get online, find the closest Urdu teacher, and sign up for classes. But now imagine that you live in extreme poverty. You’ve never even heard of Urdu. You and your child have no access to this language. You yourself can barely read and write in your own language, and since written language is generally the main medium for language teaching, even if you were to find an Urdu teacher, you’re pretty discouraged about your ability to learn it.

So you and your child are never able to communicate beyond the most simple gestures. You know that inside her mind she has thoughts and hopes and fears and dreams, but you can’t know what they are. And because of her inability to express them, everyone around you thinks that your child is mentally disabled. This may be a pretty poor analogy, but it might give you an idea of what it is like to have a deaf child in rural Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN, for its initials in Spanish) is a fully developed language with a fascinating history, but unfortunately, not all deaf Nicaraguans have access to it. (To learn more about ISN, click here). In the municipality of San Ramon, 18 children have been identified as hearing-impaired. Almost all of these children are between 8 and 12 years old, are from remote communities, and live in impoverished conditions. They are generally unschooled because their teachers are unprepared to deal with a deaf child.

Since January of this year, Los Pipitos has offered a course in ISN for these children and their mothers. The course is taught by two members of the National Deaf Association affiliate in Matagalpa. Children and adults are divided into two separate groups, with some time at the end for parent-child practice. The teachers give them “homework,” or things to practice at home until the next class. Recognizing that almost none of the students, neither children nor adults, can read or write, the ISN teachers adapted their practices to include many visual aids, such as pictures and realia. Some local teachers have voluntarily enrolled in the class, eager to learn how to communicate with their deaf students.

The results have been spectacular. A room that was once filled with silent children staring blankly off into space is now filled with the shrieks and squeals of children bubbling over with things to say. Their mothers, once embarrassed at not knowing what to do with their children, now swell with pride when they communicate through sign. Teachers who were at their wit’s end with unruly deaf students, now feel a special connection with these children.

This is yet one more miracle of Los Pipitos. Los Pipitos San Ramon is a center for children with disabilities that provides physical therapy and early intervention education. The amazing, tireless women who run this center are acutely aware of the needs of these children and their families. They proposed this ISN course to SCSRN, and with support from donors like you, they were able to offer it for the first time this year. Los Pipitos San Ramon is funded entirely through donations, and would not be able to continue providing this wonderful service to the community without your help.
If you’re interested in donating to Los Pipitos San Ramon, please contact our Development and Operations Associate, Robin, at robin@san-ramon.org.

Photo Credit: Converse College

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About Anjie Price

Anjie is Executive Director of Sister Communities, first and foremost an educator. She is originally from Mississippi, but now is a permanent resident of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Her favorite part about working with SCSRN is being involved in education in new and creative ways.

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