Pushing Boundaries: Deaf student helps deaf refugees find their voice

Published: Feb. 20, 2017 By

“I was scared and shy when I first moved here,” Taw said. “I’ve become a much more courageous and confident person now.”

Refugees immigrating to the United States can encounter many hurdles acclimating to their adopted home. 

Adapting to a new way of life is much harder when they’re deaf. Sign languages used in other parts of the world differ greatly from country to country.

Pamela Wright, a graduate student in linguistics at CU Boulder, is not a refugee, but as a deaf person, she saw the need and wants to gather resources to make their transition better. 

Wright uses American Sign Language (ASL) and a translator to facilitate her communication with hearing people. She has a master’s degree in deaf education and volunteers in local schools and around the community, helping deaf refugees develop communication skills so they can grow and thrive here. 

Pamela Wright signs with Taw, an 18 year old high school student in Boulder

Linguistics graduate student, Pamela Wright, signs with Taw, an 18 year-old refugee from Myanmar

“I feel like this is an area of knowledge that is entirely untapped,” she said. “We really can learn a lot about people by learning their language.”

To establish a starting point for the process, Wright learns enough of the person’s native language to be able to communicate. She has worked with eight refugees. 

One of them is Taw, who emigrated from Myanmar. His father was killed by Burmese soldiers, and Taw, who is 18, spent years in a refugee camp, afraid to use any sign language for fear of being punished. 

The sign language he used in his native country is vastly different from ASL. Since he didn’t know English or ASL when he was evaluated for placement of services after arriving in Colorado, Taw was thought to have no language ability and was regarded as severely mentally deficient. 

Wright began working with the high school senior last June. When she met Taw, he had just arrived into the system, a system that Wright claims is ignorant of the needs of deaf refugees. Their communication began at a rudimentary level—using photos and videos online to find common ground. Simultaneously, Wright was learning his Myanmar sign language. 

As Taw learned to communicate with Wright, his intelligence and personality began to show. 

“It was a slow process,” she said, “because I couldn’t teach him ASL or English without being able to understand him. I don’t know if there’s a written record of the sign language he was using, so I had to learn it from him first. If they have to work harder cognitively to process information to understand me, then I feel like I should work harder to understand together.”  

Over three weeks, the two of them were figuring out ways to communicate.  The first thing Taw conveyed to her was the violence that took place in his country. From there, the story-based interaction of his being able to tell Wright his story opened up their communication and he began to progress.

“I was scared and shy when I first moved here,” Taw said. “I’ve become a much more courageous and confident person now.”

Signed language doesn’t follow the spoken language of the countries some refuges are from. It’s a separate language. Using International Sign Language, which is Eurocentric, is a good starting point for communication, but it’s not used in all countries. 

The inspiration for Wright’s volunteer efforts with refugees developed after meeting Sushil, who is deaf. He emigrated from Nepal in 2008. Wright met Sushil at a deaf event in Boulder. 

Sushil knows six languages, owns a computer company in Nepal and has traveled around the world. In the U.S., he discovered there were few local deaf services available to him. Deaf-specific services put him into programs with people who were labeled as “cognitively delayed.” 

Being unable to fluently communicate with ASL, Sushil struggled to find work that matched his skills and experience. He lost jobs because of his lack of communication. When he met Wright in 2012, he had picked up enough ASL to easily communicate with her. 

“My work experience is very different from the work I am doing here,” Sushil, 38, said. “I have experience in the tech industry, design and photography. I think people look at me and don’t believe I have skills because I’m deaf and obviously not American. That’s a challenge I face.” 

By combining her linguistics background, an ability to quickly learn languages and her master’s degrees, Wright wants to put her unique skill set to use. She is setting up a nonprofit organization to serve the deaf refugee population. 

“I want to see where this project goes,” Wright said. “Eventually, I would like to have some kind of lab for refugees and to teach in a university setting. With this new passion I’ve discovered, I’m trying to figure out how I can mesh those two together. I see a need and would like to work with that. I’m not here to save them. They’re strong people, but I don’t feel it’s right to leave the system the way it is, because it’s failing people. I believe in human rights and this is a human rights issue.”