DARKHAN, DARKHAN-UUL PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Azbileg Battulga, a polite, gentle woman who is deaf, was eight months pregnant when she visited her doctor one day in late December 2020. Her routine exam turned out to be anything but.
After examining her, Azbileg’s physician urged her to stay at the hospital, but she didn’t know why. She couldn’t hear his words, and he couldn’t decode her sign language.
Confused and alarmed, she turned to the Facebook Messenger app to call an interpreter at the Mongolian Association of Sign Language Interpreters. Odmaa Bolormaa, the interpreter, contacted Azbileg’s doctor immediately. There was no time to lose.
The tangled doctor-patient exchange and the interpreter’s intervention capture both the frustration of Mongolians living with hearing impairments and the new hope they’ve found using a free social media service that allows them to get information and resolve problems — from mundane issues to matters of life and death.
It’s believed to be the first service of its kind in Mongolia.
“I am proud of my job functioning as a bridge, connecting deaf people with the world, as well as with other people,” Odmaa says.
After she talked with Azbileg, Odmaa was “really nervous.” She thought, “I hope this woman’s baby lives.”
Myagmarsuren Battur, GPJ Mongolia
The Mongolian Association of Sign Language Interpreters officially launched its video call service through Facebook Messenger last December. About 8,700 Mongolians are hearing impaired, among more than 108,000 residents who live with a disability. Mongolians with hearing impairments battle isolation and frustration as they face a society without sign language. Most TV shows and news programs, for instance, don’t offer interpretation. Neither do schools nor shops.
The challenges of people living with hearing impairments symbolize larger issues facing Mongolians with disabilities, says Agiimaa Enkhtur, who teaches children with disabilities. Ramps for those in wheelchairs are often too steep. Public transport offers no accommodation for those with disabilities. Trees sprout out of sidewalks, making life perilous for those who are blind.
“A country and a city that are friendly to people with disabilities are friendly to all people,” Agiimaa says. “But for people with disabilities to live in Mongolia, it takes more effort than anyone else.”
Obtaining government services can be especially daunting. A person who is deaf and doesn’t bring an interpreter to a government agency, for example, will likely leave without being served.
That’s why the association, an advocacy organization for people who are deaf, launched its video call service. Those with hearing impairments use Facebook Messenger to contact a sign language interpreter, who then reaches out to an institution or individual on the client’s behalf.
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Odmaa is one of six sign language interpreters in the initiative. Growing up, she saw firsthand the struggles her mother faced at banks, hospitals and social welfare agencies while living with a hearing impairment. Without Odmaa to interpret, her mother was unmoored.
In 2016, Soyolmaa Lamjav, who heads the Mongolian Association of Sign Language Interpreters, teamed up with a major national corporation to start a video call service, but it never got traction, she says.
The coronavirus pandemic compelled her to try again. She focused first on getting crucial medical information about the virus to people with hearing impairments, but now the service’s interpreters offer all kinds of information.
A total of 3,543 calls have come in since the service’s unofficial kickoff in March 2020. Most callers want medical or social welfare services.
Nemekhbayar Batnasan, who has a hearing impairment, says he used to always go out in public with a family member who knew sign language. Without his own interpreter, he sometimes waited as long as a week to arrange to get one.
“Now it became very easy, since I can make a video call with interpreters directly,” Nemekhbayar says, using a sign-language interpreter.
Soyolmaa raises money for the service from UNICEF and the United States Agency for International Development, but funding will lapse at the end of August. The cost of running the service totals 6 million Mongolian togrogs (about $2,105) a month.
More funding would allow the association to hire more interpreters — both for in-person and virtual assistance — and to develop a video call service app outside of Facebook Messenger.
“Initially, the government said that it would support and collaborate,” says Erdenechimeg Erdenebaatar, manager of the association. “However, there has been no actual support so far.”
Officials at the General Authority for Development of Persons with Disabilities and at the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection declined to comment.
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On her way home from the doctor last December, Azbileg, who lives in Darkhan-Uul province in northern Mongolia, recalled hearing about the sign language video service via Facebook. She called, anxious.
“Hello? I am eight months pregnant,” she said in sign language. “I have just had a medical examination and am coming home. My doctor told me to stay [at the hospital]. I didn’t understand why he told me to stay. Please ask.”
She gave Odmaa the doctor’s phone number. Using a phone at her desk, Odmaa called the physician and told him of Azbileg’s confusion.
“Why did you tell her to stay?” Odmaa asked. “That’s the question.”
“Because she’s about to give birth,” the doctor told Odmaa. “She’s ready to go into labor.”
The interpreter relayed the message. At the end of the call, Azbileg thanked her three times.
Then Azbileg rushed to the hospital. Her husband, who also is deaf, joined her. Hours later, in the middle of the night, she delivered a healthy baby girl.
Nurses have since visited her to show her how to properly breastfeed and bathe her baby. They did similar follow-ups after Azbileg birthed her three other children, she says, but she missed much of their instruction because she didn’t have access to the video call service then.
This time, she did. And for the first time, she understood what they were saying.