Sign language at school stopped discrimination and gives new hope

Wednesday 6 November 2019

It is Monday morning, and Channy, a 7-year-old girl, wears her school uniform and a bright smile as she walks to Kab Kralanh Primary School with her friends and classmates. However, Channy was not always so happy to attend school.

Channy is a friendly girl, but previously she had no friends to play with or talk to at school. Even her teachers and parents thought it was too difficult to communicate with her. Channy struggled with adversity because she is deaf and neither she nor her parents, teachers and classmates knew any Cambodian Sign Language (CSL).

Mrs. Thida, Channy’s 25-year-old mother, described the level of communication they had together at home. “I had difficulty communicating with Channy in our daily life. When we have lunch, I would like to ask her to bring me a spoon. A simple thing, but it still not easy to tell her. She might bring me a dish, or something else. I wanted to tell her ‘this is a spoon’ but I could not.”

Channy also faced a considerable amount of discrimination in her community. “The other kids did not like my daughter because of her deafness. Sometimes they called her a ‘stupid’ girl, and no one would play with her. She was isolated and I felt sad,” lamented Mrs. Thida.

With this level of interpersonal communication, Channy was unable to express herself, play and interact, and her participation in her school, family, and community was constrained. Unsurprisingly, Channy disliked going to school, and she would often stay home instead of going to class.

Mrs. Chan Chenda, a CSL Learning Facilitator at Channy’s school, explained, “[P]reviously Channy did not have friends and was isolated at school. Sometimes when her mother brought her to school Channy would cry until she was allowed to go back home.”

Things started to change quickly when in January of 2019, Channy started attending a weekly, one-hour Cambodian Sign Language (CSL) class at her school as part of Save the Children’s CSL project. With funding from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) Innovation Xchange and in collaboration with Krousar Thmey, a local Cambodian organisation specialising in education for deaf and blind children, Save the Children has developed materials and training schedules to help support deaf children and those with hearing loss, their peers teachers and family at 10 target schools in rural Pursat Province in western Cambodia. At Channy’s school, in addition to the CSL classes, the project provides direct capacity building training to two in-school CSL Learning Facilitators and the School Principal. 

Channy immediately enjoyed the CSL class and really liked learning basic signs and using her hands to communicate with her classmates and teachers. She was able to quickly put the lessons into practice, and her communication with others started to improve from the first day.

Mrs. Eam Sophy, Channy’s School Principal, described how the project activities have benefitted the school, teachers and the community in general.  “After the project started working with my school, [we received] training about children with disabilities and sign language… I think this program is extremely good for supporting the whole community and the school system. My teachers and I have more knowledge and technical support to work with children with hearing impairments and other kinds of disabilities… I am committed to continue teaching CSL at my school. I believe children with disabilities like Channy will get benefits from [the teaching at] my school and can attend classes.”

After less than a year of CSL classes and much more confidence, Channy has gained a few close friends at school, and she can better express herself and interact with other students. Importantly, she can understand more basic words during school by asking her teacher to use the sign names.

One of Channy’s young classmates, Kimheang, told Save the Children staff about her happiness to have Channy as her new friend. “I like Channy and I wanted to play with her but I could not communicate with her before. After we learned sign language together, we use signs to communicate together. Now I am close friends with Channy. I live close to Channy’s house so we go to school together every day now. I am very happy to be friends with Channy.”

In addition to the support Channy receives at school, the project also provides individualized support to Channy and her family during monthly visits to their home. Mrs. Thida, Channy’s mother, explained the positive changes that she has seen as a result of the sign language project, “I started learning sign language with the teacher at my home. The teacher and I communicate and learn with Channy in sign language. Everyone [in the community] started to know that we could communicate with Channy through sign [language]. Some of the kids [became] interested and came to learn signs with her at home. She started interacting with the other kids and people in my community… Her friends came to the house to call her to walk to school together. Channy likes to go to school with her friends. Now I have no need to bring her to school, or worry that she will cry at school. I believe she can learn at school now. I hope she will got a job in the future and be independent.”

Channy certainly appears to be happier than before, and is on the right track to live a more independent and positive life in the future. Using her newly acquired CSL skills, Channy told us, “I love my school, friends and teacher. They are good and [can] sign with me. I like playing puzzles with my friends.