Signing for a New Life in Cambodia

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The Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme helps Cambodia’s deaf people come into their own through sign language and job training.

Sambath timidly hid behind his parents, not looking anyone in the eye. Slouching in his chair, he tried to make himself as small as possible while his parents met with staff of the Deaf Development Programme (DDP) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The youth, who was then 17, had very little education. He had briefly attended a government school where, as the only deaf student, he was bullied by classmates. He would come home crying and soon stopped going to school. 

But his parents wanted more for Sambath. They inquired about the program at the DDP office. There, Sambath saw a staffer moving her hands to communicate in Cambodian sign language. 

“When he saw us signing, he gave us his full attention by sitting up in his chair, raising his eyes and giving us direct eye contact,” says Maryknoll Lay Missioner Julie Lawler, a deaf education teacher from Austin, Texas, who has worked at DDP for the past three and a half years.

At DDP, Sambath would not be the only deaf student, and wouldn’t be picked on. His parents were hopeful, and Sambath started school at DDP the next day.

“Most of our students have never been to school a day in their life,” says Father Charlie Dittmeier, the co-director of DDP. “They have no sign language, no spoken language, no written language. They have never even really talked to another human being.” He explains, the most they have learned are “some very basic ‘home signs’ — like signs for ‘cow,’ ‘water,’ ‘cooking’ or ‘Grandma.’”

At DDP, “we are starting at square one,” Father Dittmeier says.

Father Dittmeier, who works with the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky. He began working with deaf people while still a seminarian and continued that ministry during assignments in Louisville and in deaf schools and deaf communities in India, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong before coming to Cambodia in 2000 as a priest associate of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.

Sambath (second from left) and classmates from the graduating class of 2022, with Father Charlie Dittmeier (center), proudly display their diplomas. (Sopor Lay, DDP/Cambodia)

The following year, working with Maryknoll, the Finnish Association of the Deaf and the Cambodia Disabled People’s Organization (at the time, supported by Maryknoll Lay Missioner Judy Saumweber), he helped to found the Deaf Development Programme in the capital of Phnom Penh.

Over the past 22 years, six Maryknoll lay missioners as well as others from the Maryknoll Cambodia Mission Team have been actively involved in what has become the preeminent deaf organization in Cambodia. The pioneering work of DDP helped to develop, standardize and promote Cambodian Sign Language.

At DDP, starting when they are 16 years of age, deaf individuals can take two years of basic education and social development that include learning Cambodian Sign Language, basic Khmer literacy, simple mathematics, life skills and relationship building through its Deaf Community Center events held each weekend.

After those two years, DDP offers an additional one-year course in job training. Students learn to work in barbering, beauty salons, ring molding, sewing and embroidery. By the time they leave, graduates have gained skills, language and self-awareness. They have acquired the ability to participate in society and the means to support their families.

“With access and opportunity, the lives of deaf people can be transformed,” says Lawler, who is part of DDP’s management team. She was able to observe Sambath’s progress since his first days in the classroom.

During Sambath’s first week at DDP, Lawler explains, “You could see how gradually it dawned on him that ‘these are all people like me.’”

Students finishing the first term of a two-year academic program at the Deaf Development Programme sit in rows to take an end-of-the-year assessment. (Charlie Dittmeier/Cambodia)

Students finishing the first term of a two-year academic program at the Deaf Development Programme sit in rows to take an end-of-the-year assessment. (Charlie Dittmeier/Cambodia)

As he learned more and more sign language, and became familiar with the rules and routine of the classroom and DDP’s residential house, his confidence grew. Sambath soon bonded with a group of deaf friends and found his place at DDP. He became a leader in the classroom and a support to his classmates.

While there are no official statistics on the number of deaf people in Cambodia, by extrapolating population percentages from other countries, Father Dittmeier estimates there are about 61,000 profoundly deaf people and 600,000 hard of hearing people in Cambodia.

“Here at DDP, we have found 3,000 out of the 61,000 profoundly deaf,” the priest says. “The other 58,000 right now are standing out in a rice field, and they think that they are the only deaf person in the world.”

“The first step is giving them a feeling of belonging,” Lawler says. That, she adds, “comes from being included in a community, building relationships and breaking free from the societal stigma that deaf people are dumb and cannot learn.”

Lawler has a master’s degree in deaf education from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the premier institution for learning, teaching and research to educate deaf people and promote deaf awareness. She worked as a teacher at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, Texas, for 11 years. But “a desire for change and a push from God” led her to join the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 2019. 

“When somebody like her — with her academic background and years of deaf education experience — comes and brings best practices and new techniques and classroom pedagogy and games that deaf children love to play, that is so valuable,” Father Dittmeier says of Lawler. “She’s been a real boon for us in terms of teacher training, giving our teachers new ideas and new ways of looking at things and understanding issues in the deaf community.”

In addition to sharing her expertise with DDP teachers, Lawler also provides training on hearing loss and deaf awareness to other organizations in Cambodia.

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Julie Lawler, Father Charlie Dittmeier and Maryknoll Lay Missioner Kylene Fremling (right) celebrate Deaf Week at DDP in September 2022. (Sopor Lay, DDP/ Cambodia)

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Julie Lawler, Father Charlie Dittmeier and Maryknoll Lay Missioner Kylene Fremling (right) celebrate Deaf Week at DDP in September 2022. (Sopor Lay, DDP/ Cambodia)

The reality is that deaf people in Cambodia still face many struggles,” Lawler says. “Our graduates still face isolation when they go home to their families since those families don’t know sign language. They still face discrimination when they start looking for ways to earn a living. They can face violence from neighbors who take advantage of the vulnerable.”

That’s why part of DDP’s work is educating the larger Cambodian society about hearing loss and deaf awareness.

“One person at a time, change will happen,” Lawler says.

For Sambath, DDP opened up the world. “You could really see the transformation,” Lawler says. “He was no longer lonely, isolated and scared. It was wonderful to see the smile on his face and watch him laugh with his friends.”

In preparation for Khmer New Year observed in April, Sambath, who is learning barbering at the Deaf Development Programme, gives Maryknoll Lay Missioner Julie Lawler a haircut. (Sophy Thuch/Cambodia)

For the graduation ceremony in 2022, Sambath was one of three graduates chosen to share their feelings in front of the whole community about completing the two-year program. Today Sambath happily rides his bike to job training and eagerly learns how to run a barber shop.

“I love learning about barbering,” Sambath says. “After a year of training at DDP, in 2023, I plan on going back home to Kandal Province and setting up a barber shop in my family’s house.”

He adds, “It will be nice to be able to help support my family.”

Featured Image: In Koh Kong, Cambodia, Maryknoll Lay Missioner Julie Lawler leads a team building activity for a Deaf Development Programme youth camp. (Sopor Lay, DDP/Cambodia)


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About the author

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds is director of communications for the Maryknoll Lay Missioners.