Sign Language Course Creates Connection and Opportunity for Deaf Haitians

Disabled Haitians, including those with auditory impairments, struggle against prejudice and marginalization in their daily lives. Now, an institute is teaching sign language to young professionals – and raising awareness in the process.

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Sign Language Course Creates Connection and Opportunity for Deaf Haitians

Marie Michelle Felicien, GPJ Haiti

Roseline Dumé (left) and Guerda Debra learn how to sign in a beginner class at the Institut Haïtien de Langue des Signes (IHLS), a sign-language institute in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – Roseline Dumé is a computer technician-turned-social worker, Ivelie Emmanuelle St Lot is a fifth-year medical student and Edwine Cadet is a physiotherapist. The three have different jobs but share a similar goal – to support individuals who cannot hear or speak by learning how to sign.

Dumé is participating in a year-long course, divided into three semesters, at the Institut Haïtien de Langue des Signes (IHLS), a privately owned sign-language institute in Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital. In her first class, she says she learned greetings in Haitian Sign Language, locally called Langue des Signes Haïtienne, or LSH.

Communication is central to Dumé’s work at the Commission d’Adaptation Scolaire et d’Appui Social (CASAS), a state agency responsible for special education. Dumé, the newly appointed secretary to the commission, hopes the course will help her break down communication barriers that have long existed in the workplace and other public spaces.

“Such classes create positive interactions, enabling me to serve as a deaf-mute interpreter whenever I come into contact with deaf-mutes, either in the course of my professional duties or on the street,” she says.

The Haitian government has published very little data on hearing and communicative disabilities, but in 2003, local experts estimated that 72,000 people have auditory impairments, and many do not use any form of signed language, making day-to-day living tough.

IHLS, a year-old institute, seeks to change that by training young professionals to become proficient in LSH.

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Marie Michelle Felicien, GPJ Haiti

Edwine Cadet practices Haitian Sign Language in a class at the Institut Haïtien de Langue des Signes (IHLS).

Haiti’s disabled population, nearly 1 million people, struggles to access quality health, rehabilitation and education services. Chronic poverty, limited government spending on the health sector and natural disasters have left disabled Haitians severely marginalized.

The government does not recognize sign language as an official national language or a language of instruction in schools, but it does recognize a few schools where sign language is used.

Jonas Cadet, who is deaf, has been president of Fédération Nationale des Sourds d’Haïti, a local association for persons who are deaf and mute, since 2010. Speaking through an LSH interpreter, he says people with hearing loss or speech impairments often don’t make it past secondary school.

“In 2017, only eight deaf-mutes from the Institut Montfort completed secondary school,” he says of one Port-au-Prince school for deaf and deaf-blind children.

Cadet says he was lucky enough to attend school and learn sign language in social settings, but being able to communicate is not enough. Living with a disability in Haiti remains taboo, he says, even though the 2010 earthquake left many respected community members without limbs or with other disabilities.

Cadet says members of his association are raising public awareness, but he says they need help. IHLS is providing that support, he adds.

Fenel Bellegarde, co-founder of IHLS, says 200 people have enrolled in their LSH signing courses since the institute opened in February of last year.

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Marie Michelle Felicien, GPJ Haiti

Jean Richard Dorismé teaches students in their third semester of a year-long signing course, at the Institut Haïtien de Langue des Signes (IHLS).

Jean Evens Pierre, the second co-founder, says his goal is to get as many people possible to learn sign language and become interpreters. But the courses at IHLS cost 13,000 Haitian gourdes ($191), a price many Haitians can’t afford. The fees help maintain the facility, and train and pay teaching staff.

For now, young professionals in the city make up a large part of those who can afford the classes. Bellegarde says this is an advantage because they are helping to raise awareness in professional settings and better integrate deaf and mute persons in their communities.

“These young people have become more informed about and concerned with the fate of the deaf-mutes,” he says.

For Edwine Cadet, 36, the courses are already proving useful in her daily work. She says she has less difficulty communicating with patients who can’t hear or speak.

St Lot, who’s learning LSH for the first time, says she’s excited about the opportunity.

“Throughout my education, I’ve always been seeking to promote the health of children, especially those with disabilities,” she explains. “I hope I’ll feel more equipped to serve them when it comes time for me to start my career.”

Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.

Bob Jean Carlens interpreted conversations between Jonas Cadet and GPJ reporter, Marie Michelle Felicien, speaking in Langue des Signes Haïtienne and French.