Deaf children around the world deserve the same access to education as their hearing counterparts. In Afghanistan that is no different. Yet in a country that struggles to provide adequate access to mainstream education, the deaf are beyond the fringes, despite the hard work of the amazing founder, staff, and volunteers at the Afghanistan National Association of the Deaf (ANAD).
There are approximately 10,000 deaf children in AFghanistan. Of these 10,000, approximately 1,000 are being served in Kabul and Jalalabad with rudimentary primary education. The lack of teachers means that the focus is getting the children literate and competent with Afghan sign language. The amazing thing is that the Afghan sign language is a work in progress…the language is still developing and its fascinating to be witness to the creation and evolution of a language.
When we discuss the primary needs for the deaf schools and the deaf community as a whole the picture mirrors that of mainstream education in this country. Yes, schools are needed. Yes, materials and sponsorship is needed. More importantly, for the long term, teacher training and interpreters are needed. Across the board, those we speak with cite teacher training as the next roadblock to education. Quality education is lacking and its much more pronounced in the deaf community.
It isn’t enough to provide literacy and sign language if there isn’t also a basic education in math, science, history, and the like. Literacy on its own doesn’t provide a door for opportunity. It is simply the first step in the journey. The first weapon in the arsenal. If these children are to become self sufficient, and contribute to society, they need to have the same education on offer as their hearing counterparts.
Now on my return visit, the solution became clearer. The first step is basic literacy and sign language communication for all of Afghanistan’s 10,000 deaf. Working in tandem should be the effort to train teachers to provide higher secondary education beyond the fourth or fifth year. Not only does this improve those students directly affected by further levels of education, it develops a feeder system for a future teacher training pool from the same students first affected. Creating an opportunity for employment after school in a culture with few opportunities available for the deaf.
In an effort to tackle the larger question of opportunity beyond teaching, an effort must be made to train interpreters. This would allow for students to integrate into high school and university should they choose, as well as providing access to opportunities in hearing world unavailable at the present time.
Despite the broad and challenging picture of the long term needs of Afghanistan’s deaf community, taking the first step is actually very simple. Literacy, schools, teacher training, all working to grow in tandem to the benefit of all. In the specific case of the ANAD, and its school of 250 children, its a simple matter of funding. They need to build a sustainable school that can house a larger school for more children and space for a teacher training program. As teachers become trained, model schools can open in the key cities of Afghanistan; Mazar i Sharif, Herat, Bamiyan, and hopefully in the south should security allow. Each school educating the deaf children, as well as their families and communities.
Parween, is one of Afghanistan’s biggest advocates for the deaf. A petite woman, usually wearing a lavender headscarf, with a warm smile, Parween is an amazing woman who works full time with UNESCO and still finds time to play a key role in advocating for and guiding the ANAD and its school forward. She passionately guided me around on my first ever visit, acting as interpreter, and explaining long term vision of the ANAD and the deaf community as a whole. This visit she reprised her role as interpreter, taking time away from her family to meet with me after work to brainstorm solutions and where Mountain to Mountain could facilitate ANAD’s desire for a sustainable program for deaf education. I even received the honor of getting my own sign…a sign that represents my name to speed things along when we are all talking.
As ANAD, Parween and Mountain to Mountain brainstorm and make plans, it is our hope that the hearing impaired community in our own country will come to embrace Afghanistan’s, and work as a role model for what the deaf community can hope to achieve in the future.
photo by Di Zinno