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American Annals of the Deaf

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The Emergence of the Deaf Community in Nicaragua: ďWith Sign Language You Can Learn So MuchĒ

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America, I was especially curious about the lives of persons with atypical hearing (i.e., hearing loss or deafness) in economically less-developed countries. I wanted my dissertation to envelope both themes. As the second poorest country in the Americas, Nicaragua certainly qualified as less-developed, and my previous residence in the country gave me leads about which groups worked with persons having atypical hearing. As I was preparing for my first research trip in 1994, my adviser, Madeline Maxwell, told me that Nicaragua was on the map in the world of linguistics because Judy Kegl had publicized the existence in Nicaragua of a distinct sign language that, according to Kegl, had been devised by deaf children first brought together by the Sandinista Revolution. I contacted Kegl who graciously recommended additional sources I should seek out in Nicaragua.

When I returned in January 1997 for a year of field study, I expected to be examining how children with atypical hearing are prepared and transitioned into the regular education system (which is the Ministry of Educationís official goal for those in the classrooms for hard of hearing or deaf children in the special education schools). Naturally, I wanted to learn the sign language I had seen children using at school. I was told that the best way to do that, in addition to observing the children at school, would be to take language lessons at the deaf association and observe the language use there as much as possible. I followed that advice, dividing my time between the special education school, the deaf association, and observation at the hearing and speech clinic operated by the Parents of Disabled Children group (known as Los Pipitos).2

In addition to private and group lessons in NSL, my observations at the deaf association included regular attendance at Wednesday literacy classes for young adults and Saturday afternoon social hours when older deaf adults were likely to appear. My curiosity about ANSNICís history ultimately piqued a wider study of the historical view of deafness in Nicaragua. I had arrived assuming, in accordance with what I had been told that, prior to the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, no attention had been paid to children or adults with deafness. And I also believed that the sign language had arisen quickly and spontaneously after the Revolution when elementary-age children were first brought together for schooling (Kegl 1994). Over the course of 1997, I learned that history was not that simple. I began to interview anyone who had ever been involved with education of deaf children and to ask the older deaf adults about what they remembered.

For one thing, there had been education available for deaf children since the 1940s in Nicaragua. And the story of how the sign language grew was also more complicated. Even the date of the deaf associationís founding (April 22, 1986) was not as unambiguous as I had thought. The conclusion I drew from further research was that the story, as I had first accepted it, seriously underestimated the adolescent contribution to the formation of a deaf community and its language. I focused my time in Nicaragua to reconstruct the history of education for deaf children there, especially the events surrounding the foundation in 1981 of a vocational center accepting deaf adolescents and young adults. I also sought to document the history of any Nicaraguan organizations of deaf adults. (Ultimately, I only found one.) I hypothesized that if more of the history of what happened in Nicaragua were known, it would shed light on our wider understanding of how any deaf community and its sign language had/could/would emerge. In part because deaf people in Nicaragua have historically not been considered worthy of much note, and thus, are not much remembered, but also because doing any kind of historical research in Nicaragua is exasperating, finding the history of the deaf community in Nicaragua turned out to be more labor-intensive and time-consuming process than I had ever expected. But now that the parts I have found are gathered in one place, I hope it will be both a contribution to other researchers working on NSL and its precursors (e.g., Senghas and Coppola 2001; Senghas, Senghas, and Pyers 2004, etc.) as well as provide deaf Nicaraguans with a written version of their history.


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