Nidhi Joseph, 4th year Biopsychology student, and Koon Peng Ooi, 3rd year Economics and Mathematics honours student, will discuss their time working for the Good Samaritan School for the Deaf, a primary boarding school for deaf children in rural Uganda.
Interview conducted by Marion Benkaiouche.
You worked in Uganda supporting a school for the Deaf—as foreigners, did you ever feel uncomfortable?
Yes, A LOT. In Uganda, there is a word called Muzungu that refers to privileged white foreigners. Even though the both of us are from Asia, this label was weirdly applied to us because we studied in Canada. Many assumed we were rich, experienced and knowledgeable, simply by the fact that we were able to fly in and volunteer for three months when most of the people at Kitengesa were struggling to get by.
Because we had to work hard to be able to get there, it was initially annoying to feel stereotyped. We were constantly asked to give money because that was what they presumed we were there to do. We came to understand that Uganda’s colonial past was a contributing factor to their deeply rooted schemas of foreigners. As we got to know people well this became less prevalent but confronting this uncomfortability made us realize that we are really privileged!
How do you feel this could have affected Ugandans? Often, African countries are used as training grounds for Western-educated individuals to work out their own issues. Why Uganda?
There are many ways to perceive international service learning projects. Without adopting a critical lens and being thoughtful about working with community partners, they can potentially be disastrous. The question is how we can make sure that the service and learning components are weighed equally by the participants, so that they do not gain at the expense of the organization. For us it was never about learning for three months and moving on to something else.
We chose Uganda initially because we identify with the literacy project that the UBC international service learning program offers. We were able to connect our academic interests to community service projects. We feel that there is not enough of that at university. There is a risk of becoming too focused on personal gain and not thinking about the social impact of our endeavours.
Do you do any work in Vancouver or elsewhere in Canada with persons who are Deaf?
We are both taking classes at Vancouver Community College to improve our sign language. Through that, we get to interact with deaf teachers and other students interested in deaf studies. We hope to increase our understanding of the deaf community in Canada. Last year, we visited Slope Elementary, a primary deaf school and learned how deaf education is practised here. We are looking at the possibility of starting a pen pal program to link Good Samaritan School for the Deaf and other organizations for the Deaf in Uganda with those in Canada. We are constantly in touch with Good Samaritan and strive to support them from here
I recently learned about the social model of disability. The current model, the one society has adopted is the medical model—it’s the idea that a person is unable to blend or operate in society—it’s not society’s problem/responsibility. The social model is the idea that society and the infrastructure we’ve built is the barrier—not the individual. Care to discuss?
Our sign language teacher recently told us about his experience trying to donate blood. He said that after completing all the steps of blood screening without any problems and sitting at [Vancouver General Hospital] for 45 minutes, he was told that he could not donate. The medical authority was afraid that there was a communication barrier that prevented him from telling them if he felt dizzy, so they wouldn’t know to stop. Of course, our teacher was very disappointed with the treatment he received. They were unwilling to put in the effort to establish a sign that he could use to signal discomfort.
This is why the medical model of disability comes under so much criticism, because of its tendencies to emphasize differences, rather than the common attributes that we share.
Be sure to check out Nidhi and Koon Peng’s talk at the TEDx Terry Talks on November 2nd, at the Life Sciences Institute, UBC. For ticket information, please visit: http://bit.ly/1aioyd0