David and Kirsten O’Halloran, Tasmania Regional Meeting
One of my favourite passages in the “Red Book” is the following reflection from Deborah Haines (1978):
“I think I have wasted a great deal of my life waiting to be called to some great mission which would change the world. I have looked for important social movements. I have wanted to make a big and important contribution to the causes I believe in. I think I have been too ready to reject the genuine leadings I have been given as being matters of little consequence. It has taken me a long time to learn that obedience means doing what we are called to do even if it seems pointless or unimportant or even silly. The great social movements of our time may well be part of our calling. The ideals of peace and justice and equality which are part of our religious tradition are often the focus of debate. But we cannot simply immerse ourselves in these activities. We need to develop our own unique social witness, in obedience to God. We need to listen to the gentle whispers which will tell us how we can bring our lives into greater harmony with heaven.”
People are sometime curious about why a couple of Tasmanians dedicate so much of their time and money to a project in a country that few people have ever heard of, let alone know anything about, but the passage above can sometimes go part of the way to explaining it.
For the last 12 years Kirsten and I have been going to Tajikistan in Central Asia, initially observing and consulting with a local NGO that aims to raise the status of deaf sign language in Tajikistan, introduce bilingual education for deaf children (i.e. learning written Tajik through sign language), and advocate for the Deaf. Over the years, we have taken on more responsibility and now are the primary fundraisers and supporters. It started with a small group and now we employ 11 staff in country with an annual budget of approximately $USD30,000.
It came about through a chance encounter. Tajikistan was never on our bucket list of places – “we don’t do ‘stans’” was our initial response. However, the “gentle whispers” kept on telling us that we could do something and that in fact we must.
In Tajikistan, two thirds of the population live on less than $2.15 per day. Up to 90% of the male population has migrated outside of Tajikistan to find work. Tajikistan has a high incidence of profound hearing loss. There is little or no access to hearing aids and less than half of all deaf children access education. Our focus is to provide an early intervention program to teach pre-schoolers and their families to use sign language. This is done by employing deaf tutors going into homes, which also provides an employment opportunity for deaf people. Each of our tutors has a caseload of three families at a time with a goal of teaching 170 key signs before they graduate from the program. At graduation, families have enough language skills to mix with deaf people, and deaf children are ready to start formal schooling, which uses sign language. Children who have no language to communicate with, don’t develop age appropriate thinking or social skills and often display challenging behaviour. Some of the children on entry into our program cannot sit still, even though they are 5 or 6 years old. Our tutors really struggle to engage the children in the lessons. Sometimes it can take months of showing signs before a child begins to respond—just as it takes months or longer for a hearing child to begin attempts at using language. However, once these children grasp that signs have meanings, and that meanings are powerful for getting what they want—off they go! The transformation is at times nothing short of miraculous. They begin to interact, and they smile.
We have nine tutors working with 27 preschool-aged children and their families in four municipalities. Although our project is small, we believe that it is significant—we are the only organisation in the country tackling the issue of communication difficulties in the home. Our children are all demonstrating great improvement as they and their parents work with our home visiting tutors each week.
If you would like to know more about the project, please contact us by email or Facebook “Deaf Children of Central Asia”