Breaking the Silence

19 April 2012

by Stephen Brown

Stephen Brown describes how SERVE’s projects open up a new world for deaf Afghans

My first lunch at SERVE’s Kabul headquarters, in January, was both confusing and inspiring.

As I sat on the floor, I heard the usual babble of voices talking in English, Dari and Pushtu. But across the room two staff members were conversing silently in Afghan Sign Language, hands moving swiftly and gracefully as they discussed the bitterly cold weather.  Next to me sat two blind staff members, oblivious to the conversation between their two deaf colleagues.

Sign language discussion

My first reaction was “How on earth do they work effectively together?”

My second was pure admiration.  Their very presence demonstrated that SERVE practices what it preaches - the full integration of disabled people into Afghan society. 

That’s no easy task in a country where disabled people have often encountered prejudice - or even violence.  Khalil, a SERVE staff member, says “Most Afghans think that deaf people are crazy in some way, so they make fun of them.  People have thrown rocks at me because I’m deaf.”

While Afghan men injured fighting for the mujahideen have always been honoured, even receiving government support, other people with disabilities have traditionally been ignored and marginalised.  For example, if you were born blind you were likely to be kept at home and taught to recite the Koran by heart for family ceremonies.  Some estimates suggest that between one in five and one in ten households support at least one disabled person.   But most are kept hidden away.  And until recently, their prospects looked bleak.

Student in CwDMHC Class

Now that is changing.  Afghanistan’s disabled - and the local, national and international organisations which support them - are becoming increasingly vocal.

SERVE has been in the vanguard of that movement.  In 1995, it started a revolutionary project to document Afghan Sign Language and publish a trilingual dictionary for use in the school system.  It is now developing a video dictionary for signers.  (Click here to see how the video dictionary is progressing.)

The agency also provides “hands-on” support, working with thousands of disabled Afghans to ensure they receive an education.

In February, I visited SERVE’s school for the deaf in the eastern city of Jalalabad.  The sun was shining brightly after days of rain and many classes were being held outdoors to make the most of the warm weather.  Some of the students were considerably older than school age, catching up after missing years of education.  

Class on a large mat

A kindergarten class was sitting on a large mat spread out on the ground.  It's a new group, made up of deaf children and their hearing siblings.  It's a bit of an experiment - the teacher is learning on the job.  The idea is for siblings to learn sign language so the deaf child will have someone to communicate with at home.  Later, hopefully, other family members will also learn.  Parents are so pleased with the quality of education that they’re urging SERVE to admit more hearing children!

For many, the Jalalabad school is a life-changing experience.  Several of the teachers, deaf themselves, graduated from there and are now studying part-time at teacher training college.

Another Jalalabad graduate, SERVE staff member Faiz Mohammad, says that for years people thought he was crazy.  “It wasn’t until the very end of my schooling that things changed. People saw that I had earned a diploma, that I could read and that I had found a job.  Only then, after 12 years, did they understand that they had been wrong all along.”

It took a long time to persuade the educational authorities that deaf students could learn.  But this year the first six deaf students entered university.

SERVE’s programmes to integrate blind students into state schools have also been received enthusiastically.  Visiting these projects in different parts of Afghanistan, I heard our staff talking excitedly about students learning Braille and achieving excellent results in their classes.  Teachers and other students are increasingly starting to recognise them for their ability rather than their disability.

'Reverse Inclusion' class with hearing children

Back in Kabul, I smiled to myself every morning as I walked into the office and said 'salaam' to the receptionist.  I had to say hello because she is blind, and could only recognise me by my voice.  A capable, bright and intelligent young woman, she is finishing a degree course this year.  I know she is set for greater things.

She is just one of many disabled Afghans who are proving that they can, and should, be fully included in every aspect of society.

 

Stephen BrownStephen worked with Afghan refugees in Pakistan from 1991-1997, and first travelled to Afghanistan in  1993.  He worked for BAAG member Tearfund for 6 years as Desk Officer for Afghanistan, and was Chair of the BAAG Board of Trustees until  2010. Since 2003 he has worked as an independent trainer and evaluator.  He spent the first 3 months of 2012 based in Kabul as Interim Executive Director of SERVE Afghanistan (www.serveafghanistan.org).