“I can now communicate,” said 23-year-old student Kheng Nat. “People don’t ignore me or discriminate against me here. It is not like at home or in the village.”
The situation in Cambodia, which has no state-funded education program for the deaf, is by no means unique.
“Worldwide, deaf children and young people are often denied an education, including in sign language,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Sign language is critical for deaf people to be able to communicate, express themselves and learn,” she added.
The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) campaigns for better access to education for the 70 million deaf people around the world, the majority of whom live in developing countries that lack well-trained sign language teachers. In many nations, the quality of education for deaf people is low and the illiteracy rate is high, according to the WFD, which deplores “a massive ignorance in education systems about the importance of sign language.”
One of the first things students do when they enter the DDP school in Phnom Penh is to choose their own sign name — a crucial step towards leaving their solitary life behind.
“I met lots of deaf people here who are now my friends,” said Darong. “I’m not by myself anymore.”