Wellness and Linguistic Barriers in Deaf Communities in Nigeria and Papua New Guinea

Rarrick, Samantha
Asonye, Emmanuel
Rarrick, Samantha
Asonye, Emmanuel
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In communities around the world, Deafness is closely tied to wellness. In this presentation, we address the unique linguistic barriers faced by Deaf individuals as an issue of health (Yoshinaga 1998) and identity (Padden 1989; 1996) in Papua New Guinea and Nigeria. We discuss the impact of the projection of Deaf peoples’ perceived “unwellness” onto their languages which often results in language endangerment and difficulties for researchers. Linguistic barriers can also disempower the Deaf population, contributing to vulnerability. While these are global issues for Deaf people, we provide examples from our work, arguing that language documentation and conservation can help break down stigma against sign languages and their users by acknowledging that sign languages are full languages. We create materials which empower signers and allow them to become better educated and involved in their health and wellness decisions. In the communities with which we work, linguistic barriers are closely tied to both stigma against deafness and vulnerability. Firstly, a medical model of deafness, which assumes that deafness makes a person unwell and can be fixed, is common (Padden 1996). In less developed nations, such as Papua New Guinea, signers are often ostracized, with hearing individuals denying the existence of deaf relatives. As a researcher, this can make it difficult to find Deaf people and learn about their languages. In Nigeria deaf children are marginalized and underdeveloped, and their language is highly endangered. There is a variety of basic wellness issues in this population, including the fact that 75% of hearing loss in children is accidental and avoidable. Most girls living in dorms in the Schools for the Deaf have a sexually transmitted disease or have been sexually abused. Linguistic barriers make confiding in an adult is especially difficult, and these girls often have little or no information about these and other health issues. Through language documentation and conservation efforts, we can address some of the wellness issues that deaf people in such communities face. Firstly, we can create informational materials to inform signers about health issues in their own languages. We can also work to decrease stigma against both sign languages and their users by drawing attention to their presence. Finally, it is essential to take one’s time in documentation, as it can take years before vulnerable members of the community are willing to work with outsiders, but it is vital that these highly endangered languages are documented and conserved. References: Padden, Carol. 1989. “The deaf community and the culture of deaf people.” In Wilcox, Sherman (ed.), American Deaf Culture: an Anthology. Burtosville, MD: Linstok Press, Inc. Padden, Carol. 1996. “From the cultural to the bicultural: The modern Deaf community”. In Parasnis, Ila (Ed.), Cultural and Language Diversity: Reflections on the Deaf Experience (pp. 79-98). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. Yoshinago-Itano, Christine, Allison L. Sedey, Diane K. Coulter, and Albert L. Mehl. 1998. “Language of early-and later-identified children with hearing loss”. In Pediatrics. 102: 1161-1171.
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