“My experience with the Jamaican education system as a Deaf Jamaican has not been a good one,” notes Shana-Kay Goodman. She is an outspoken colleague of mine. We work alongside each other as part of a youth core of over 20 youth advocates known as Y-KLICK, an initiative sponsored by Respect Jamaica and UNICEF.
Through Y-KLICK, the 21-year-old from Old Harbour, St Catherine advocates on behalf of Deaf Jamaicans across the country. Part of the challenge she personally strives to overcome as a Deaf Jamaican are issues with the education system and its inability to meet the growing needs of the Jamaicans within the deaf community.
Growing Up Deaf
“I was born deaf. I grew up with the disability and that journey was not easy for me. Age 12-years-old was the first time I explicitly remember being affected by stigma, mocking and discrimination. I was not unique in this because this is something that happens to deaf people across Jamaica.”
According to Joshua Project website, “the exact number of signing deaf people [in Jamaica] is uncertain” (Joshua Project, n.d.); however, the 2001 census found that 2.7% of the Jamaican population has a hearing loss (Nam, 2005). This is an approximated 7,500 people out of a total population of 2.8 million and does not take into consideration the members of the deaf community born deaf, like Shana-Kay. Estimates range the total deaf population between 7,500 to as many as 200 thousand (Kennewell 2009 and Gayle 2005), but this I consider largely guesswork and a comprehensive figure on the deaf community remains to be found available on the internet.
Discrimination from Hearing Jamaicans
Regarding the treatment meted out to her as a Deaf Jamaican, Shana-Kay says, “Most of my life I was force-fed that I was first my disability and then a human. This was something I had to unlearn.” Goshen (2007) reports that, “Attitudes toward deaf and disabled people in Jamaica are often negative; both deaf and hearing people may refer to deaf people as “dumb,” “stupid,” or “slow-minded” (in Parks, Epley & Parks 2011).
“We are robbed, cheated, rejected, cursed, and abused because of our disability. We are seen by society as insensitive, stupid, and to have no set goals in life,” tells one deaf girl from the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf (CCCD) campus in Kingston, quoted in the Report by Barrett (2008 in Parks, Epley & Parks 2011). Her comments echo those of Shana-Kay’s and more than likely indicate a patterned experience among persons within the deaf community.
“The worst part of gowning up deaf was being mocked and labeled a dummy,” Shana-Kay continues. “I hated it. The result of all of this was that I grew up with a self-conscious sensitivity and insecurity towards myself and other deaf children. Now that I am older, I have accepted myself as a deaf individual and opened myself up to the wider public. It is this self-acceptance that allows me to be an advocate and to help hearing Jamaicans understand the deaf community.”
Education particular has been a sore point for Shana-Kay. “I remember when I’d almost finished high school and I applied to sit the SAT exams for studying abroad online. I’d confirmed them that I was deaf and I submitted the request for communication. When the SAT exams came around there was no interpreter provided and the invigilator told me that I couldn’t do my exam without the interpreter and to do it at a different time. I begged the invigilator to allow me to do the exam until she agreed, but, unfortunately, the exam still didn’t go my way.
“Since I couldn’t afford to resit the SATs exam, I decided to apply for UWI in their Radiology programme. UWI, however, advised me to volunteer at the University Hospital and take some classes before enrolling. Sadly, I was also rejected by the UH Radiology Department. Since then I have not been able to find a suitable programme because of no communication support. This has been a most frustrating and discouraging experience in pursuing higher education.”
Shana-Kay’s story is even more disheartening when we realize she is among the more fortunate the deaf community where education is concerned. “Deaf students who graduate from secondary school usually have less than a fifth-grade reading level,” notes a finding from Volunteer Abroad (in Parks, Epley & Parks 2011). Shana-Kay’s completion of high school education with the requisite qualifications, sadly, puts her in a group of privileged few within the deaf community to achieve this.
“Because most deaf students leave school between age 14 and 16, few complete secondary school and, as a result, few deaf people have professional employment” (Delgado 1995 Parks, Epley & Parks 2011). In fact, Parks, Epley & Parks (2011) notes that, “[M]ore than half of the deaf community in Jamaica lives in poverty. Many are unemployed and have difficulty finding jobs, due to lack of communication access, necessary qualifications, and the necessary social networks typically needed to find work in Jamaica.”
“Currently, I’m taking some classes,” Shana-Kay says “but I still keep sending requests to various hospitals to volunteer. I’m still also experiencing difficulties with getting classes in some subject areas. For example, Biology is a common enough subject area that many has many privately run classes for the hearing, but it is so difficult to find a class with interpreters for the deaf. Some biology teachers have said it is impossible for deaf to have a class without the interpreter because biology is such a difficult subject. In the Jamaica Education system, interpreters are very necessary and important for the deaf community. This is one of the major things I advocate for. I hope in the future the deaf community can be more included simply by opening up communication to us.
“In improving the quality of life of the deaf community, the most important thing is community. We have a say but all we need is interpreters to help get that voice across. More employment opportunities for deaf is required and more inclusion in education, especially at the tertiary level.”