True sign languages arise when communities of deaf people have the opportunity to interact and communicate with each other — there are around 200 sign languages in use around the world today. However, in some countries, there is no deaf community, just deaf individuals isolated from each other and from the world around them.
In 1997, when Catholic priest Charles Dittmeier arrived on the scene, Cambodia was one of those countries. There were no services available for deaf people, who were generally stigmatized and treated as outcasts. Since 1997, Dittmeier has been working with the Maryknoll Deaf Development program to coordinate the development of a Cambodian deaf sign language.
Now, the charity operates a school for deaf teenagers and adults in Phnom Penh, offering food, clothing, shelter and job training programs to people who have grown up without a language, often without even a name to call themselves. Ouen Darong, 27, described his life before he came to the Deaf Development Program center:
“I didn’t have any contact outside of my family. It was like being in prison. I was stuck there. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any education.”
Now, he is training in to be a barber. As Dittmeier told the Louisville Courier-Journal, this situation is all too common:
“Most deaf people here have no language beyond rudimentary gestures. They have no language and have never been able to communicate with another person. They’re totally isolated.”
Students at the center also get the chance to shape the development of Cambodian sign language. As far as Dittmeier is concerned, the program’s role is that of a scribe. They don’t create signs for deaf students to use; rather, they record them as they develop. The priest explained the process for the Taipei Times:
“We are constantly trying to expose them to new ideas and then they start developing the signs. Then our work is to record the signs. We draw them. We scan them. We put them into books and dictionaries. When they start wanting to talk about new topics they will develop new signs. It shouldn’t come from the hearing people — it should come from the deaf people. And so their life expands, their language expands, their world expands.”
What an amazing story! If you’d like to learn more about the Deaf Development Program, check out their website.