The (Lack of) Deaf Culture in Cambodia

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Just some basics to start things out...

  • The population of Cambodia is nearly 16 million people.
  • Of those 16 million, roughly 1.5 million are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Of those 1.5 million, 51,000 are profoundly deaf.
  • Of those 51,000, less than 2,000 have access to deaf services. That means the other 49,000 people are standing out in the rice fields believing he or she is the only other deaf person in the world. 

To say my visit to the Deaf Development Programme was eye-opening is an understatement. The sheer facts and statistics left me speechless. The program director, Charlie, is my new hero. His passion and desire to help the deaf community is impeccable and inspiring to say the least. 

Up until 1997, yes just 20 years ago, there was no deaf community in Cambodia. There was only a deaf population, meaning there was no Cambodian sign language, no assistive resources, nothing.

It took a Finnish deaf woman coming to Cambodia to see what the deaf situation was like for any real change to happen. She and some others started to build up some resources in Cambodia, but it was and still is a slow evolving process due to the lack of knowledge about deafness in the Cambodian population.

Most locals associate the Khmer word for 'deaf' with 'dumb', comparing deafness with the inherent ability to speak. Many deaf and hard of hearing are perceived as having a mental disability or are considered 'crazy'.

Charlie spoke of his own personal experiences visiting rural villages to seek out deaf people. He and his team would ask village chiefs and villagers if they knew of any deaf villagers. More often than not, their response was "no, but we know a crazy person. They don’t listen to their parents and they make weird noises.” Charlie and his team knew fully well that these 'crazy' people were not actually crazy but rather, they were suffering from deafness.

DDP and a few other organizations in Cambodia work together to send field workers out in search of deaf people. Many of the deaf people, however, that are brought to DDP don't know their names, where they came from, or where they can find their families. They are unable to write in Khmer and do not know sign language. Oh, and most of these people are well in their 20s and 30s. DDP works specifically with people over the age of 16, while another organization works with kids under 16. 

DDP runs a 2-year basic education school program and is hoping to add a third and potentially fourth year. They start out by teaching them sign language, since many have literally no language coming in. And Cambodian sign language is still a work in progress. It started being created in '97 by pulling deaf people together, pointing at an object and collectively deciding what the sign should be. 

After the basic sign language training, the students are introduced to simple reading and writing in Khmer, math and life skills including but not limited to hygiene, family relationships, and other street smarts skills they need to survive. 

From there, the students are introduced to job training skills such as sewing, cutting hair, cooking and more. When DDP began working with a job-training center that agreed to take on deaf people, the center was so impressed with the workers saying they were their best employees and requested more. However, due to the lack of interpreters, they have not been able to send as many to work. 

Another project at DDP, in addition to basic education and job training (there are six projects total), is Cambodian sign language interpreting in an effort to provide more interpreters for the deaf workers. The other projects at DDP include: Cambodian Sign Language (for deaf and hearing people and development of the language in general), Deaf Community Development (outreach, activities, etc.), and Social Service (medical care, counseling, and support). All six projects combined work to create more awareness and opportunities for the deaf and hard of hearing in Cambodia; to give these unique people a sense of purpose in society. 

As many of them feel isolated their whole lives, having an experience at DDP allows these people to finally feel like they have a voice. Many do not connect or get along with their families, simply because the family does not understand deafness. One of the most gut-wrenching moments was hearing that many use the Cambodian sign for 'prison' when referring to 'home'. My heart literally sank.

On my way out, I got to meet a handful of students, and the life and joy they radiated was absolutely captivating. To know they finally feel comfortable and and connected to others puts the biggest smile on your face. I know very (I mean VERY) little American sign language, let alone Cambodian sign language but the students were full of questions! Using my basic knowledge of ASL and Charlie's interpreting skills, we were able to communicate. I learned their names, their ages, and they learned where I was from. Many even said they wanted to visit the states one day. They were absolutely thrilled when I asked if I could take a picture with them. They wear uniforms, by the way, a decision the students made, I believe because it gave them even more connectedness. 

All I can say is that after this experience, I believe the US has a long way to go in terms of deaf and hearing world integration, but I am so incredibly grateful for the resources and opportunities I do have as a hard of hearing female, some of which many deaf/hoh in Cambodia will never ever see in their lifetime!

If you're interested in learning more about DDP or would like to donate, check out their site here