2 Aug 2012

Deaf people the most neglected of Solomon Islands' disabled

4:03 pm on 2 August 2012

The head of a school for deaf youth north of the Solomon Islands capital Honiara says the deaf are the most neglected of all the people living with disabilities in his country.

George van der Sant says he's in no doubt that there are thousands of deaf Solomon Islanders, particularly in remote parts of the country, who lost their hearing through infection with malaria.

Although there doesn't appear to be any research to support that hypothesis, a British study published last year identifies the most deadly form of the disease, the one most prevalent in Solomon Islands, as a potential cause of hearing loss.

Annell Husband visited Brother George's six-year-old San Isidro Care Centre on the coast at Aruligo, and talked with the staff and students.

Ben Esebaea Junior, who is 20, tells me in sign language that he became deaf at the age of one, after he contracted malaria.

I interviewed him in the open air, seaside classroom where the school's 52 students aged between 15 and 25 learn sign language, English and maths.

Mr Esebaea is a former pupil who now tends the centre's crops, its sole means of generating income.

He's also a member of the group that performed custom dances and a student-written play during the recent Festival of Pacific Arts.

I watched the play being performed - a comedy with a strong message about personal hygiene.

It involved the male students playing the parts of inanimate objects such as a door, toilet, and shower.

Ben Esebaea tells me that such performances reinforce to the audience that deaf people should not be ignored and should be treated just like people who can hear.

Sister Ana Tawake, a catholic nun from Fiji who has only been at the school since the beginning of the year, agrees.

But she told me by the light of a hurricane lamp in her kitchen that it took her time to decide to accept Brother George's offer of the position of manager.

"Knowing that I don't know even how to sign, I have no idea at all. So I thought when I come here I'll go crazy because I'm handicapped in signing, in the language. So as I go on as the months go, I tend to pick up the language but one thing I really go for is the passion of who the students are. Even though they are handicapped, we label them as disabled, but they are not. They are able people and they are capable people. They only need somebody to love them."

The head of Community Based Rehabilitation says the most recent nationwide survey in 2005 found 14,000 people living with disability in Solomon Islands but Elsie Taloafiri wasn't able to tell me how many of those people are deaf.

Her organisation, which comes under the health ministry, needs more government funding.

Because currently we are only providing services in terms of health. But for their welfare, livelihood and all these areas we still need the government to support us. Because that's the most important area within disability, especially if you want to do empowerment for people with disability.

Brother George says no one from government has ever visited his school and for the majority of deaf people in Solomon Islands, there's precious little government help.

For me, government don't do anything, hardly do anything. They talk about it and they know that it's their job to do something but I talk to our students, 'You are mysteries. You are mysteries. You must wake up these people'.

But many deaf youth are also mysteries to their families, the majority of whom do not try and learn sign language and consign their deaf children to a life of solitude.

Sister Ana says family involvement is crucial.

That's what I say in the beginning, it will be nice if those students whom are here, their parents would be able to come around. And that is another thing, that they don't come. This is like a dumping place for their children. They bring them, they never return to visit them. They only wait until they come home, for holidays.

Lynette Manakera, who is 19 and can lipread as well as sign, tells me her mother, sister and brother all communicate with her in sign language.

I ask her what she wants to do with her life.

I want to be a teacher, a teacher at this school.

Mary Maneka, who is a teacher and translator at San Isidro, reiterates the importance of communication for deaf children.

Parents who don't learn sign language, she says, tend to use their deaf children as ceaseless workers, socialising with them only at mealtimes.

Ms Maneka says those deaf youth tend to be aggressive, with behavioural difficulties that return once they've graduated from the school.

Some of the students share about their sadness and then I encourage them and say, 'You have to, to stand in your own way. When they do something like that to you, you talk and you have confidence to say something to them so that they can understand you'.