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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Emergence of the Deaf Community in Nicaragua: “With Sign Language You Can Learn So Much”

Laura Polich
Foreword by Philip Lieberman


The mid-July heat made it nearly impossible to breathe in the National Nicaraguan Association of the Deaf’s (ANSNIC) small office without air conditioning. Because both audio and video were being recorded, it had been necessary to close the outside windows to shut out the traffic noise from the street, but the blare of television and laughter from the adjoining room meant the inside door leading to the rest of the building also had to be shut. In this oven-like atmosphere, Natalia Galo, a deaf woman a few years over thirty, had been responding for about an hour to questions about her experiences growing up and her present life. But now we were all exhausted, and I moved to bring the interview to a close.

“Just one last question before I turn off the camera,” I told Yolanda Mendieta, the Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) interpreter with whom I was working. Looking at Natalia, I asked in Spanish: “What is it like to be deaf?” Yolanda’s hands went immediately to work, translating my words, and after gravely following Yolanda’s motions, Natalia turned to me and signed her reply.

“I am content. I feel contented to be deaf.”

Curious, I continued: “If you could change anything, what would you change?”

“I’m deaf, that’s all,” Natalia answered. “I would be fine always being this way, being deaf. I feel like myself. I don’t know what to say, but I would be deaf, even if I could be born again, I would be born deaf the second time. It is what I am meant to be. It is the same as for you, being hearing.”

I persisted. “But what if you would be reborn the only deaf person in Nicaragua—everyone else would be hearing—would you still choose to be born deaf?”

“Me the only deaf one? No way. I remember being little, and how lonesome I felt, and it wasn’t until I went to school that I felt happy. I met other deaf children. What a wonderful surprise! It’s true that they didn’t use the sign language we have now; at that time, it was just gestures. But I was so happy to find myself with other deaf people. If I were the only deaf person, I just know I would have no hearing friends. I wouldn’t be able to understand them!”

Feeling that there was something more here, I asked, “And what if you could be reborn and there would be many, many deaf people—thousands and thousands—but there was no sign language? What if there were deaf people all over the place, but all of them only spoke with their mouths, orally, and none ever used their hands? Would you still choose to be born deaf?”

“No, no, not that way. If there was sign language, yes, I would still choose to be deaf. It is impossible to understand only through speaking. With writing, you can get a little, but it is only so-so. But with sign language you can learn so much.”

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