“Deaf people can do anything hearing people can except hear.”
Those were the words of Dr King Jordan who made history in 1988 when he became the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, Washington, DC. It is the world’s only university where all the programmes and services are designed specifically for students who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Also seeking to leave his mark on the deaf community is vice-president of the T&T Association for the Hearing Impaired (TTAHI) Ian Dhanoolal who is currently compiling a sign language dictionary which will feature unique aspects of this country’s culture, music, food, dialect and even local popular sayings.
Dhanoolal said the effort is aimed at the development of the deaf community.
He said he gathered the information for the sign language dictionary by checking all around the country “to see what kinds of signs that people use all over.”
“We will include the old with the new and modern and will merge that with what is already existing. We want a dictionary that matches with the culture of Trinidad and Tobago,” Dhanoolal explained.
“When people from other countries come here, they will see we have our own sign language that is unique to us and it will also be something we can showcase and call our own.”
The first Caribbean national to be awarded an Edward Miner Gallaudet Award, the 44-year-old Champs Fleurs resident admitted he was surprised when he was selected earlier this year. The award is presented to a deaf or hearing leader from any place in the world who is working to promote the well-being of deaf people worldwide.
“I received an email from the Gallaudet University, Washington, which said I won an award.”
Speaking through interpreter Terence Gopaul at DRETCHI, Dhanoolal said: “I asked what? how? what is the reason? It was later explained to me that I had won an award for representing the deaf people of Trinidad and Tobago.
“I felt very elated, encouraged and proud to learn my peers had nominated me. It has bolstered me to think more positive for the future in terms of establishing a right, as it were for this country, to have their own sign language.”
A tutor in the Caribbean Sign Language Interpreting programme at the University of the West Indies, Dhanoolal is considered an excellent language model and instructor. He also conducts research on the culture and endangered indigenous sign languages of other Caribbean and South and Central American deaf communities, including those in St. Vincent, Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Honduras, and Colombia.
He also collaborates with deaf culture and language researchers in the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Dhanoolal presented his findings at the World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf in Istanbul in 2015 and will do so again this summer in Paris on gender, violence, economics and human rights.
Beyond the classroom, Dhanoolal was the first deaf interpreter on television in T&T and plays a leading role advocating for deaf interpreters to be employed as a matter of custom at public events such as the presentation of the national budget and its follow-up debates, national consultations and large-scale meetings.
As president of the Deaf Empowerment and Advocacy Foundation (DEAF), Dhanoolal said he is especially pained whenever members of the public use negative terms such as hearing-impaired and handicapped to describe deaf people.
“Deaf people would just prefer to be called deaf because that really matches their culture and identifies who they are,” he said.
“Deaf people have their own unique culture. If someone is deaf, they must feel proud but hearing impaired on the other hand can be where that person may just have a loss of hearing. Some deaf people are also ashamed to be identified to be part of the hearing community and we don’t want that. We want deaf persons to feel proud of who they are and I want to showcase the deaf culture and help the public understand that culture.”
Dhanoolal lamented the lack of inclusion of deaf persons generally, noting that one area that is sorely lacking is in the number of sign language interpreters.
“We need more hearing people to come and learn sign language, not just for school but for deaf persons who need to access to doctors, banks, and other institutions,” he said.
“We need to change the needs of the education system to match the needs of the deaf. That is the challenge we face because most of the time it is not welcoming to deaf persons.”
The T&T Association for the Hearing Impaired (TTAHI) was founded in 1943 with the aim of providing a better quality of life for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, late deafened and their families.
It was established under the guidance of Reverend William Gilby as the Trinidad Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb.
On November 15, 1943, the School for the Deaf was established at Martha House, Edward Street, Port of Spain and in 1946, the school was relocated to Cascade Road, Cascade, and renamed the Cascade School for the Deaf.
During the 1960s, the Audrey Jeffers School for the Deaf was established due to the momentum gained in deaf education and in response to the growing number of children being diagnosed with deafness in south Trinidad which was attributed to an outbreak of the German measles-rubella virus.
In 1962, the Association was incorporated by an Act of Parliament No. 18 and its’ name changed to The Trinidad Association in Aid of the Deaf, removing the term ‘dumb’ from the title, which many people regarded as offensive. In 2000, the name was again changed as the old Act was repealed.
The vision of the founding board was to provide support for parents and families of deaf students in education and social life. However, it was not until the late 80’s that the mandate of the Association was extended to include a holistic range of services that provide clinical, diagnostic and therapeutic benefits for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, with emphasis on diagnosing and treating the early stages of hearing loss in children.
The Diagnostic Research Education Therapeutic Centre (DRETCHI) opened its doors on November 21, 1991, as the clinical and technical services function of TTAHI. It was created to provide audiological services to strengthen and implement the mandate of the Association.