Gallaudet Exhibit to Shine Spotlight on the Deaf Peace Corps Volunteer Experience
By Erica Burman on Thursday, October 13th, 2011
Knowing that 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, a member of Gallaudet University’s Museum Committee proposed an exhibition on Deaf Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). It was to be a small, one-wall celebration to say that Deaf people were in the Peace Corps too, but it turned out to be much more.
When the call went out for photographs, objects, documents and stories for the exhibit — which opens on October 25 — Deaf RPCVs (and 3 PCVs) flooded the Museum office with material. The Museum processed over 450 photographs in August and September while trying to complete a script and design a much larger exhibition revealing a more complex story.
Issues raised included the common Peace Corps experiences of working with scarce resources and living without running water and electricity, but also what it meant to be a Deaf PCV, most often working in schools for Deaf children. RPCVs talked about the familiarity Deaf people have with being an outsider even within their home community and how they are accustomed to being stared at. This may give Deaf Volunteers greater comfort when placed in an assignment where they are a foreigner. At the same time, Deaf Volunteers are able to quickly bond with Deaf students because they are also Deaf.
In sign language there is a phrase, “Deaf-Same” that is often shared when two Deaf people find each other. It is used in the United States and in many places of the world and it means that although we come from different places and backgrounds; we share the experience of being deaf, of learning without sound, of enduring discrimination and barriers. Deaf RPCVs and their students found that “Deaf-Same” connection.
Other Deaf-specific issues in the exhibition are the lack of telecommunications access many RPCVs experienced. In the US, they may have had the (now outdated) teletypewriters that connect with the phone to place a call, captioned TV, or Internet. Unlike hearing PCVs who listened to the radio, many Deaf Volunteers could not get basic news of the country.
Deaf Volunteers found themselves needing to prove that deaf children could learn. In some places, education for deaf children was just beginning and PCVs were to start a program and demonstrate their success. One of the greatest challenges was false perceptions about the capabilities of deaf people and local feelings that a deaf child is seen as a judgment of past sins or a curse on the family. Deaf Volunteers often became a living, physical example of an alternate view.
Connecting a community
Norma Morán, a Deaf Volunteer who served in Kenya from 2000-2003, had been serving as the informal “connector”
for the Deaf RPCV community because Peace Corps was not keeping a record of Deaf RPCVs. This July she was asked to moderate a discussion panel with Deaf RPCVs at the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival, and afterwards Gallaudet curator Jean Bergey drew her into planning for this museum exhibit.
“It has been an honor hearing and learning about earlier generations of Deaf PCVs’ work, as they are true pioneers,” says Norma. “Just last Friday, we were able to meet with Daniel Blessing, who is the second Deaf person to join Peace Corps in 1969; he ended up serving three years in Ghana. Even though Daniel and I served 30 years apart in Africa, we were able to identify some things in common that we experienced as Deaf volunteers.”
Thanks to this exhibition, Norma has tracked down more Deaf/Hard of Hearing (HH) RPCVs to add to her list. The total number of known Deaf/HH RPCVs to have served from 1967 to present is now 58. Some will be in attendance for this exhibition and associated events, and it will be first time that an organized gathering of Deaf/HH RPCVs on a large scale will take place.
Galludet University Museum presents
Making a Difference: Deaf Peace Corps Volunteers
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
12:30-1:30 pm – Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Panel Discussion, I. King Jordan Student Academic Center, G-Area
2:00-4:00 pm – Exhibition Opening. I. King Jordan Student Academic Center, The Weyerhauser Family Gallery & Exhibition Hall
4:15-5:15 pm – Living Exhibition Performance of Peace Corps Journeys. Eastman (Black Box) Theater, Elstad Auditorium
[Since becoming active on Twitter, NPCA staff have had the opportunity to "meet" several Returned and currently serving Peace Corps Volunteers. Occasionally, we even meet in person! This summer our Twitter friend Erikson Young, a Deaf RPCV in town to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival's Deaf Volunteer panel, stopped by our offices to say hello. Erikson in turn connected us to Norma. Many thanks to Erikson, and to Norma for her contribution to this article.]