What Desa Bengkala Taught Me about Language, Access, and Interpreting

This is a re-post from the Facebook note of one of my dear friend Vanessa Urbantke who is currently doing a swell job helping deaf people in Bicol, Philippines. I requested her if I can put it here in my blog and she gladly accepted. :-)


Bengkala Community

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting a small village in northern Bali, Indonesia. The place sparked my interest after a Google search the previous evening, where I read that those living in the village carried genes that gave rise to hereditary deafness and a rather large population of deaf people. I wanted to see this community and learn about their own unique sign language, Kata Kolok (Deaf talk), which was used by the Deaf and hearing alike. I did not know that my experience would be so much more enriching that previously anticipated, and that my experiences with hearing people along the way would help me understand the linguistic complexities facing the Deaf community.

I am not a sign language interpreter, but I have many Deaf friends and sometimes, I am called to help get the message across. Over the years, I have been witness to their struggles and even started to think I had come to truly understand their situation. There are times when I find the ignorance and indifference of hearing people hurtful and offending. Yet there is nothing more effective than learning from experience. I would like to think that if we all had a chance to be different for a day that we would be more accommodating as a society for people with disabilities and for people who are from minority groups.

As a multilingual hearing person with English as my first language, I never experience difficulty in accessing information in my own language the same way the Deaf do. When I ask a question, I usually get a good answer. There is always someone around who can explain things, and always someone I can talk to. When someone does not understand me, it is usually quite easy to find someone who does. My friends are not as fortunate – very few hearing people know any sign language beyond the common gestures, which has adverse effects on employment opportunities, quality of education, and also limits the depth of friendship outside of the Deaf community. Just as I had trouble connecting with the hearing Balinese when they did not speak English, the same goes for a Deaf person in a hearing society. This tragedy means that we miss out on each other. A hearing mother who never has a meaningful conversation with her Deaf daughter should be something we can all lament over. A deaf student who sits for years in a classroom with hearing pupils, never having experienced the richness of Deaf friendships and what it means to truly understand should be something we all disapprove of.

As a hearing person with many Deaf friends, I deeply enjoy the community and sense of belongingness that when with them. It is a special feeling to be in the silent crowd yet also be connected to those around you, however unknowing the others may be. Yet this feeling of isolation, what I deem as special, is an everyday reality for my friends. I never realized how difficult of a reality this really is until recently. Perhaps it is because I have forgotten about my early days in the Philippines, which was a half-baked experience as it was because of the widespread prevalence of English in all aspects of life.

I learned a lot more than a handful of Kata Kolok signs and Indonesian words in Desa Bengkala. My experience has helped me to reflect on my years of working with the Deaf and has enabled me to understand their struggles in a completely new light. To be misunderstood is one of the worst feelings in this world. It is a dehumanizing feeling, one that leaves us hurt and angered yet helpless to express any of those feelings. To be shut out of the lives of others, to remain on the fringe of family affairs and public life simply because of differences in language is an immense tragedy. From the standpoint of English, even in a place where people do not speak it, the language itself still gets respect. But in the case of the deaf in the rural Philippines, sometimes their language is dismissed altogether. Language is what makes a people, and for the Deaf, it is Filipino Sign Language that they hold pride in, it is what gives them their identity and it is the language in which they can best access information and express themselves. Failure to recognize Filipino Sign Language has a negative impact on all aspects of a Deaf person’s life, whether at school, in the workplace, or at home. Of course, a day in Desa Bengkala did not allow me to experience all the complexities of language access, but it did help me feel more empathetic towards the Deaf community.

Reflections on Interpreting

When I arrived at the village, the first thing the motorbike driver did was to help me find someone who speaks English. We went from house to house, and in each house I stood in the doorway or sat on a floor mat completely lost in translation. I would not have been able to tell if they were plotting to poison my drinking water or were truly sincere in helping me. Luckily, it was the latter. After a few tries, we found a guy who knew a few more English words, not just “no”. We did not very far though, and soon I decided it would be best to hang out with the kids since playing was more of a requirement than talking. I really went to the village to visit the Deaf people, who at the time of my arrival were at a funeral. I did not have anything really important to say to any of the hearing people, so failure to find a decent interpreter was more of a nuisance and not a big deal at all.

However, on the bus ride back to the south, I had an encounter with the bus driver. He was coming onto me, asking me constantly in the only broken English that he knew, “you, me, hotel later.” I brushed it off at first, until he started pushing up against me physically and staring at my chest in the cramped seat. I knew that we were headed to a desolate bus terminal at the end of the line, and he knew that I did not know my way around. People on the bus were looking at him in a very disapproving manner, the women almost upset yet not ready to speak out. No one spoke English, and I found myself limited to gesture in trying to explain the situation. When I did this, the man would laugh and talk over me, and people would answer back. I understood nothing beyond the tone of their voices and the looks exchanged, and it was enraging. After a day in the village, I was armed with only a few fitting words that had stuck in my memory: “gila (crazy)” and “Saya tidak mau kamu (I don’t like you)”. Correct or not, I was understood. Yet simply calling this man crazy and telling him that I did not like him was not even close to what I wanted to say. I was not expecting a good English speaker to pop up out of nowhere, but had one been on the bus, it would have given me a lot more power and made me a lot less weary of the whole situation.

This is exactly what many Deaf people experience in their daily lives – the lack of skilled interpreters disables them. Without a decent interpreter, proper exchange of information is not possible. Oftentimes, I am hesitant to interpret. I do not refuse, but I somehow always feel that I will not do justice to the job. But now, looking back at my experience on the public bus in Bali, perhaps I should put more effort into it – not many hearing people know sign language where I live.

And just to let you know, I ended up getting off of the bus before arriving at the terminal, and I never saw Agong Rai after that.

While being unable to speak Indonesian was a disadvantage, I really only spent 3 hours with people I was not able to exchange a decent word with, and that pales in comparison to those who endure this for a lifetime. Yet even though it was for a mere few hours and the experience rather enjoyable and interesting, I looked back on it the day after and thought to myself, “now this is what my friends have been telling me for years – this is how they feel”. Comfort in Community

Ultimately, it was the Deaf residents of Desa Bengkala with whom I connected with the most. Language barriers across different sign languages are a lot easier to overcome than those in spoken languages, so it was not that difficult to have a decent conversation. Even if some was downgraded to gesture, at least it was a colorful mime of sorts that was well understood and enjoyed.

Many Deaf families took the time to bring me to their houses, to let me peak into their daily lives and share a cup of tea. I watched the sun rise while seated on a wooden bench outside the kitchen, a fire burning to cook the day’s rice. I visited the school of their children and sorted fragrant cloves with the women under a tarp in the early morning sun. It was a short and sweet visit, one pleasant enough for me to hold it in my memory as an idealistic community where the Deaf were included and respected.

One of my most memorable moments from the village was when we shared a juicy red watermelon on the living room floor. I was sitting there with six deaf people from three generations. They were telling me about an upcoming Hindu festival in October and how I should stay for it. One girl told me, “We will all go the beach and take pictures together with your camera!” In a moment of silence, we all glanced up at the television. The woman next to me asked me, “do you understand that?” I said that I did not, and they laughed for they did not understand it either.
There is no need for us to remain apart, separated. We all have our own abilities and disabilities. Being deaf is only a disability because most people can hear. When a hearing person is placed amidst a group of signing Deaf people and their eyes fail to understand the words dancing in the air, they become disabled. Disability is a social construct, and if such differences would become widespread, we would eventually adjust and emerge as a more accommodating and accepting society than what we are today. And so it is, in the hills of northern Bali there is a small unassuming village that we all have a lot to learn from.

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    […] of present-day Bengkala sign. Source:  What Desa Bengkala Taught Me about Language, Access, and Interpreting by Vanessa Urbantke. Used with […]




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