Klaus Waiditschka, head of department for non-formal educationand international cooperation at Jugendhilfe und Sozialarbeit e.V., Fürstenwalde/Spree (www.jusev.de)
Quiet. Not really the adjective that comes to mind when you picture a lively, colourful and dynamic youth exchange. However, quiet is the right word for this particular exchange because when you meet up with deaf people, sounds are irrelevant. If you want to make yourself “heard”, you need to put out a signal, such as switching the lights on and off to get everyone’s attention. “Listen to the silence” was an experiment we staged in 2016. It was a double exchange, if you will – between young people from three countries (Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta) and between deaf and hearing youngsters. In fact, we performed the experiment three times: in March 2016 at our youth education centre in Hirschluch near Berlin, in June on Gozo (Malta) and in September on the Vltava river in the Czech Republic. Another anomaly: we did these three exchanges with (almost) the same people within the same year. And then we repeated the exercise a fourth time in September 2017, in Malta, with a larger group.
“When did you last do something for the first time?” was the question with which we invited hearing youngsters to join the experiment. The response was overwhelming; we had more applicants than spaces. Experiencing for the first time that you can communicate without speech – how do you do that? By asking deaf young people to help. Being deaf doesn’t mean you’re different; it means you communicate by other means. When it comes to wordless communication, deaf people are the experts; us hearing people can learn from them. Why do schools teach foreign languages, but not sign language? Besides making some progress with sign language, we also experimented with all kinds of non-verbal communication – writing, gestures, images (photography), theatre (pantomime) – learned a lot about the participating countries, took trips to the surrounding region, talked about successful famous people who are deaf (who most hearing people have never heard of), and discussed why deaf people are often discriminated against and considered stupid.
Despite our efforts to teach some simple sign language, a lot of what happened during these exchanges was only made possible by the presence of sign language interpreters. As people who don’t live in a silent world, we might think that sign language makes it so much easier to transcend national, cultural and (spoken) language borders. That’s true, but it’s also not true. Deaf people are used to using their entire body to communicate, so it’s easier for them to reach out to people on the other side of a national or language border. But: every country has its own sign language! So what happened was that the hearing participants communicated in English, but whenever they spoke English, they had three or four interpreters next to them who simultaneously translated their words into various sign languages. This could only be done simultaneously because the interpretation made no sound; interpreting into several spoken languages could only have been done consecutively, which would have taken ages.
The project started in 2015 with an inquiry and a search for partners in the Czech Republic. International youth exchanges for deaf youngsters have existed for some years, many of them organised by the European Union of the Deaf Youth (EUDY). However, an exchange involving hearing and deaf young people was certainly something new – exciting and challenging at the same time. Our association was asked to help because we have been organising international exchanges for persons with specific needs for many years. That said, our regular clients tend to be young people with learning difficulties and minor intellectual impairments. At this point we had never dealt with hard-of-hearing or deaf young people before and in fact, this turned out to be the biggest challenge initially. How could we reach out to deaf communities without anyone on the team with a knowledge of sign language? Finally, we managed to get there in the end, thanks to support from the Czech Republic and a lot of knocking on doors. The next challenge was to find two sign language interpreters. We had to place around 80 inquiries until we found what we wanted: not all SL interpreters work with English and what’s more, their normal work settings are doctors’ surgeries and public authorities, companies and training sessions where they work by the hour. Certainly not groups of young people who meet for an entire week and need constant support.
We learned, crucially, that exchanges with hearing and deaf young people are not really that different from “regular” youth exchanges when it comes to concept design and group dynamics. The participants, no matter their language, are first and foremost young people with normal human needs such as a safe space and guidance at the beginning of the exchange. They are curious about getting to know other young people from other cultures, they share a common goal – to work towards a shared goal in a mixed team – and they are all delighted when they can present the fruits of their work. Of course the methods have to be adapted. For instance, activities that use sounds can be adapted to use sign language instead. A drama project will be more of a pantomime than a spoken theatre piece. However, the biggest challenge – and the greatest asset – is the additional language involved. Using Language Animation methods, the hearing participants become curious about learning a new language, which can become a major skill for them to take away.
Over the course of the project, most partners from the early days departed while others joined. A youth council from Malta felt unable to deal with the work involved, so we are now working with the Deaf People Association. This, I feel, has been a big step forward in terms of project quality because the DFA, a disability community organisation, is now part of the group and has delegated deaf representatives to the preparation and organisation team. It took quite some persuasion and a willingness on the part of Germany’s national agency JUGEND für Europa to learn that the deaf youngsters would not be “piggybacked” by the youth organisations, but that they have their own representatives and would of course also need sign language interpretation during the planning sessions. The fourth country to be invited to the project was Slovakia, initially via an informal group of young people. Meanwhile, in the next project phase the Slovak Association of the Deaf became our official partner.
While our target group is currently limited to young adults, the next step – provided we get the go-ahead – will be to organise similar activities for a younger group (aged 15-19). We are fortunate in that two of our hearing participants are currently studying to become professional sign language interpreters and will be available to participate in an exchange. In September 2017 one of our former deaf participants was appointed the director of German Deaf Youth, so now there is close cooperation on the German side with deaf community organisations, too. In summary, having overcome its initial challenges the project is now well positioned to continue its work in the coming years.