Elizabeth Ramirez is deaf, and since she was a small girl has benefited from Piña Palmera’s work in rural communities Southern Mexico.
There is no school for the Deaf in the entire state of Oaxaca (as is the case with most states in Mexico) but Piña has been visiting rural communities there for almost three decades, and bringing Sign Language with them. Sign Language is only one facet of Piña Palmera’s work, however. Piña practices what they call “Community-based Rehabilitation” but it includes aspects of education, socialization, and social work, in addition to therapy for people with disabilities and their families. The model was originally promoted by the World Health Organization in the 1980s, and is currently used by organizations and
governments around the world.
In the car to Puerto Escondito, the first of two communities we were to visit that week, I attempted to introduce myself to Elizabeth on the back of a business card I had with me. “Hi, I’m Jeff, Moises’s friend. I will film you today.” I wasn’t sure of her level of literacy, so I tried to keep it simple. I was happy to find that she was quite adept at written
Spanish and we chatted (graduating our conversation from my business card to her notebook) for the rest of the car ride. Often, when I wrote her a message she would “read it outloud” to herself by signing the words as she read them. I suspect that it was partly for my benefit, and it worked: I actually picked up a few signs by watching her do this.
As we conversed and I learned more signs, we used the notebook less and less.
Until recently, the only Sign Language teacher in the region had been Moises Zuniga, a social worker at Piña Palmera and self-taught signer; but Moises can hear, and a hearing teacher that learned sign language from books is never going to be the same as a native signer. Partly it’s due to the poor educational materials available for teachers like Moises to learn signing, and partly to the infrequency that they use their knowledge. Linguists around the world agree that the most thorough
language acquisition comes from being immersed in the language on a regular basis: it’s how 99% of us learn our first language.
When we arrived in Puerto Escondito, there were a few families already waiting for us. Piña works with people with all types of disabilities, both physical and intellectual. I saw there were some young kids there for speech therapy, a baby with a
Cephalic disorder and at least one young blind boy.
As soon as the Deaf and hard of hearing kids arrived, the air was full of flying hands and fingers. It was immediately obvious to me why having a Deaf teacher for sign language is so valuable. Moises always signed well, but he never looked like a fish in water the way that Elizabeth does when she signs. Over the years, she has found other ways to hone her own communication skills, from video-chatting with friends in other locations using platforms like Skype and Oovoo, to taking classes in other states. It has taken a lot of work, but Elizabeth has achieved a level of Spanish literacy and fluency that few Deaf people enjoy in Oaxaca.
I flitted around, snapping pictures, trying to capture the essence of a visual language in a single moment. After a time I turned my attention to the parents’ self-help group meeting on the other side of the outdoor patio. The parents (95% mothers) get together whenever Piña visits to talk about their kids, both the positive and the worrisome. As the day wound down, I started pulled mothers out of their self-help group for short interviews about their experiences.
Con la participación de Piña Palmera
Two days later I accompanied Piña to Candelaria Loxicha, another small community about two hours from the Coast of Oaxaca. This time, Mirian Lopez also joined us, and split the task of teaching with Elizabeth. Mirian leaned Sign Language from Moises as well, but never achieved the level of Spanish literacy that Elizabeth enjoys. She works well with Elizabeth, sharing responsibilities and modeling cooperation for the smaller children.
After a sign language-based introduction as well as a silent version of Duck, Duck, Goose (silent, that is, besides the laughing and shouts of joy that always accompany the game), each of the women took about five students and ran through vocabulary on flash cards and worksheets. One exercise designed to reinforce Spanish literacy involved matching drawings to written words. In one of the groups, a grandmother participated, surprising me with the number of signs she
has endeavored to learn in her twilight years.
The services that Piña provides continue to be very necessary. Not only do children get a few hours every couple of weeks with a native speaker of Sign Language, but the format of the session allows them to socialize with each other and their family members are encouraged to participate in their education as well—something that Mexican public schools tend to fail miserably at. Technically the education system in Mexico is “integrated”, but critics point out that integration implies a level of inclusion of children with disabilities that is all but absent from today’s classroom.
Two days after visting Puerto Escondito and Candelaria, I met with Mirian and Elizabeth one more time to observe them preparing for next week’s community visits and film them interviewing each other about their personal lives. It was not only an opportunity for me to see two native signers express themselves about being Deaf in a hearing world, but also to see them demonstrate their independence through their language mastery. They talked about employment, education, and their hopes for the future, but they lingered on the topic of miscommunication. Elizabeth and Mirian told story after story of
problems they had had understanding their public school teachers, or accepting or declining invitations to dance at parties they attended. It made me think about how much of an opportunity there is to teach sign language to communities as a whole, and not just Deaf people and their family members. Sign language is a beautiful expression of the human experience, incorporating facial expressions, pantomime and a unique spatial grammar. It can be used at a distance and in situations that demand silence. It can be employed with a window between the speakers and even before a child has learned to speak. It is as human and as useful as the spoken word.
Where I am from, in the USA, Sign Language is accepted as normal but by no means widely used among the Hearing. Maybe through involving communities in sign language education, organizations like Piña Palmera and extraordinary individuals like Elizabeth Ramirez can show us what real inclusive education in Mexico can look like.