True sign languages arise when communities of deaf people have the opportunity to interact and communicate with each other — there are around 200 sign languages in use around the world today. However, in some countries, there is no deaf community, just deaf individuals isolated from each other and from the world around them.
In 1997, when Catholic priest Charles Dittmeier arrived on the scene, Cambodia was one of those countries. There were no services available for deaf people, who were generally stigmatized and treated as outcasts. Since 1997, Dittmeier has been working with the Maryknoll Deaf Development program to coordinate the development of a Cambodian deaf sign language.
Now, the charity operates a school for deaf teenagers and adults in Phnom Penh, offering food, clothing, shelter and job training programs to people who have grown up without a language, often without even a name to call themselves. Ouen Darong, 27, described his life before he came to the Deaf Development Program center:
“I didn’t have any contact outside of my family. It was like being in prison. I was stuck there. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any education.” Read more