Deaf Issues in Cameroon

January 27th, 2015 by | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

When I met with a director of a school for the deaf in Bamenda, she said to me “If we could have [cochlear implants] in Cameroon, it would solve so many problems.” While I agreed fully that cochlear implants would make a huge difference in the lives of many deaf people, I never fully grasped and understood how many challenges deaf people faced in Cameroon. Yes, I am deaf but because I have the fortunate to hear with cochlear implants, I have faced too few challenges and thus, I have not been able to fully see how people with no hearing live. The only real challenge I face besides asking people to repeat what they said and misunderstanding from time to time is asking my Cameroonian work partners and friends to text me when I can’t understand them on the phone due to using a very bad quality and cheap $30 phone and their thick accent.

In the past two weeks, I have interviewed a number of deaf people and parents of deaf children for my Community Needs Assessment.

When I interviewed a mother of a 24 year old deaf son, she told me that her son struggles to shop for food. She explained to me that he can’t communicate with vendors to negotiate the price and ask how much food he wants to buy. I never once realized that shopping for food could be a challenge in Cameroon. The challenge just didn’t occur to me. Unlike her son who communicates in American Sign Language and uses no amplification devices, I have the fortunate to be able to communicate and understand the spoken language with cochlear implants. In the United States, every food is labeled with price tags and when we go up to a cash register, we can see the total cost on the computer screen. Therefore, there is no need to worry about whether or not we are paying the right amount. There is no negotiating involved. This is not the case in Cameroon. Price tags don’t exist on food except in a very few number of shops. We have to ask the vendor how much we want to pay and negotiate the price.

However, when interviewing many students at another school for the deaf, some said that they can still shop for food on their own as long as they have paper and pen to be able to write what they want to say. Some others who have their parents shop for food simply because it’s their parents’ responsibility said that they still do not have the confidence to shop for food on their own. One deaf student pulled out cards from her pocket. These cards had writings of places in the city. She explained to me that her biggest barrier is communicating with taxi and moto bike drivers and telling them where she wants to go. Many taxi and moto bike drivers are illiterate and can’t always read the name of places. Some deaf students said this is the same case if they write what food they want on a piece of paper as many vendors are also illiterate.

Like hearing aids and cochlear implants, sign language most definitely has tremendous financial barriers for parents. Even though one school for the deaf does offer sign language classes for parents, almost none of the parents will learn sign language because they cannot afford to leave work and lose money from the hours they work. Keep in mind that most Cameroonians are poor or middle class, and so, even when they work full time, they are still already financially stressed. When they are not working, they are spending time doing household chores such as cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. Keep in mind that washers and dryers are almost non-existence in Cameroon.

The two schools for the deaf I visited use American Sign Language, not any other type of sign language. This is because the teachers at both schools were trained by people from the United States. However, the American Sign Language is a little modified to accommodate words that do not exist in the American culture such as “baton de manioc” and “koke,” Cameroonian food.

All of them didn’t learn sign language until between ages five and eight years old when they first started going to the school for the deaf. Most of them were born profoundly deaf or became deaf before they started speaking and so, that means that they had no language until they went to the school for the deaf. I noticed that those who started sign language later struggled to understand some questions and express themselves. For example, when the interpreter signed to a deaf girl, “Do you wish that your family knows sign language,” the girl didn’t understand the question. The interpreter than changed the question to, “Will you be happy if your family knows sign language?” The girl finally understood the question. I asked the teachers if they noticed that those who started signing later in life have greater language skill problems and their response was, “Yes.”

Almost all of the deaf students who I interviewed at one school for the deaf said that they feel lonely and sad at home because their parents and other family members do not know sign language. Their family members create their own hand gestures to do simple communications. Some also communicate by writing on paper. They all do say however, that they do wish that their parents and family members would learn sign language or they could be able to hear and speak because they feel so left out of conversations. One girl comes to school crying often because her family treats her badly. A boy didn’t attend school for three months because he wanted his father to see that he has a problem and get him to help him. He also said that he prefers to go to the forest to sit and look around the environment because he feels lonely at home. Another said that she wishes that she could join her siblings when they play with their neighbors. Another girl said that her family gets angry at her when she studies at home. I visited one home of a 16 year old deaf child and the mother showed me a small poster that her deaf son put up, which displays the sign language alphabet so that his family can learn them to communicate with him.

A deaf child hung a sign language poster on the wall of his home so that his family can learn sign language.

A deaf child hung a sign language poster on the wall of his home so that his family can learn sign language.

However, two girls said that they don’t feel lonely because their sisters know ASL by learning it from a textbook. Another girl did mention that her sister did learn ASL by attending classes at a school for the deaf, but her sister is now in England and studying. So, at the moment she is feeling lonely and sad.

Almost all of them do not know their family’s local dialect. In Cameroon, almost every ordinary Cameroonians know a local African language and speak it at home with their families and neighbors. But they all do know grammar English as they learn it in school. Some also know French as schools for the deaf offer French classes.

A few said that they would like to go to a university but can’t because there are no sign language interpreters at universities. One student at the school is 26 years old, and I asked him why he is still in school. He told me that he wanted to continue to learn.

This same 26 year old deaf student said that he wants to go to America because he believes that he would be able to go to a hospital and be able to hear and speak again. He was born with normal hearing and became deaf likely from meningitis at the age of 10 years old. He still had speaking skills. He also told me that he has hearing aids but they have been sitting in the “repair room” at a school for the deaf for many years. He has been asking to get them back, but they keep telling him that he will eventually get them back. He said he wants them back because lipreading is easier with hearing aids.

None of the deaf students I interviewed wore hearing aids. Most of them have never tried them because they cannot afford them. I asked them if they could afford to buy them, would they like to try them. They all said, “Yes.” One in fact made a big facial expression showing that he really wanted hearing aids. A 22 year old girl said that she wants to have an operation to hear. It’s important to note that she was born deaf, has no lip reading or speech skills, and never wore hearing aids. I couldn’t bear to break to her that it’s not an option even if money was not an issue. The reasons is because research studies have shown that deaf people who do not get cochlear implants until many years after they were born deaf or they became deaf before starting to speak cannot use the technology successfully because the brain has hardened to the point that it has no flexibility to learn to hear and understand speech. She also said that she wants to live in a society where she can communicate with everyone.

When I asked one deaf student if his grade level is average, above average or below average, his response was, “Average but I’m not intelligent.” I responded to him by saying, “You are still intelligent. It’s only your ears that don’t work.” He also told me that he worries that he will not be able to get a job because he can’t communicate with hearing people. I told him that he will be able to find a job if he focuses on finding a job that can utilize the skills that he has.

Another mentioned to me that one of his biggest challenges is not being able to hear the radio and television and also not dance well because he can’t follow the rhythm.

Many shared that they struggle to navigate the roads because they fear that they will be hit by cars and motorcycles as they can’t hear them driving by. A number of them have actually been hit by moto bikes and cars because they didn’t hear them passing by and have been taken to the hospital due to the accidents.

Listening to their stories about the challenges they face as deaf people, especially in the homes with their families was honestly breaking my heart, but I really appreciated their honesty and openness. One of the stark differences I noticed between communicating with many deaf people who primarily communicate in sign language in the United States and Cameroon about challenges is that deaf people in Cameroon so badly want to hear while a number of deaf people in the United States choose to oppose cochlear implants and listening and spoken language. Many deaf people who primarily communicate in sign language in the United States prefer to live in deaf communities instead of integrating into the wider population.

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