New project will send sign language teachers into remote villages of Solomon Islands

ACU and the Archdiocese of Honiara, Solomon Islands, have received a research grant of nearly $500,000 to lead a ground-breaking project to send sign language teachers into remote communities of the Pacific nation.

Led by ACU Associate Professor Dr Mellita Jones and representatives of Catholic Education Authority of the Archdiocese of Honiara, the project will train deaf and hearing people across Solomon Islands in AUSLAN, before sending them into remote communities where deaf children and young adults live.

The project was co-designed by Sr Maria Fe Rollo, Principal of the San Isidro Care Centre, the only training school for deaf people in Solomon Islands; Catholic Education Authority secretary Modesta Hasiau; and former principal of Bishop Epalle Catholic School Jackson Meke.

It means sign language becomes the common language for people in remote communities of Solomon Islands.

The project is being funded through a research grant from the Education Sector Support Program (ESSP) Solomon Islands, a partnership between the governments of Solomon Islands, Australia, and New Zealand.

Dr Jones said the ultimate goal was to lead deaf children out of the extreme isolation they felt, and become a pathway to education and employment.

“It can't just be the deaf children who learn sign language, but the communities, so the ultimate outcome is to give those deaf children an opportunity to be active members, which is what people need for good mental health, prosperity and productivity,” she said.

On top of training recruits in sign language, all participants of the project would be eligible for a Certificate of Teaching and Learning from ACU, which gives them qualifications recognised by the Solomon Island’s Ministry of Education for employment in schools or other institutions.

Deafness is one of the most common disabilities reported in Solomon Islands, leading to high levels of poverty-related diseases such as malaria, meningitis, rubella and otitis media. There is currently no research to determine the exact numbers of deaf people in the country.

There is only one educational facility supporting deaf youth in Solomon Islands, the San Isidro Care Centre, operated by the Catholic Education Authority in Honiara.

Founded by Br George van der Zant of the Society of Mary (Marists) in 2007, San Isidro Care Centre is a live-in school dedicated to teaching basic skills to the deaf community, including AUSLAN.

Sr Rollo of the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary said young people who came to live at the San Isidro Care Centre experienced a profound change in their lives when they were able to communicate for the first time.

“When they come to San Isidro, it’s their first time to even get to know their name, to write their name, to spell their names,” Sr Rollo said.

“It’s very touching for us as teachers.”

Sr Rollo said deaf youth were often “the least and the last” in their communities.

“They are the least to be given the opportunity, in most cases they’re either given to other relatives, or are expected to stay at home, look after the house, or work in the garden, and they are the least and the last to receive any good information because of the difficulty and the barrier in the language,” Sr Rollo said.

After graduating from the centre, students are expected to return to their communities, however communication barriers means the re-entry can be frustrating and emotional for the deaf youth and their families. The funded research project means the centre can now send sign language teachers into remote communities to support their graduates and others who are hard of hearing.

“The families want an opportunity to learn sign language so they will have a better way of communicating with the children,” she said.

“Now with Catholic Education Authority, and ACU through Dr Mellita, through this project we are making another big step to answer a very basic and essential need of people in the community - to help our young people, especially those who are hard of hearing.”

Catholic Education Authority secretary Modesta Hasiau said deaf children in Solomon Islands should have equal rights to education and employment opportunities, but it was not the reality.

“It’s just a barrier with the communication that they can’t fully participate in the larger community and society, like with employment and all sorts, but at the end of the day they are Solomon Islanders, they are human beings as well,” she said.

Ms Hasiau said inclusive education would likely be the next big challenge for governments, as community members in Solomon Islands push to have all teachers trained in sign language.

“Studying at San Isidro will be a milestone, and probably an eye opener for the government, so they can see this is very important and adds to what the nation has already written down in our inclusive education policies,” she said.

As a former school principal, Mr Meke said implementing inclusive education was difficult in Solomon Islands, where infrastructure, resources and funding are limited.

“Being the former principal of one of the big schools in Honiara, I can say that we tried our best to address the issue of inclusive education,” Mr Meke said.

“I remember back at Bishop Epalle, we had a blind student, and we had to photocopy his test papers on A3 for him to be able to do that test. That can’t be done in many other schools throughout Solomon Islands.”

Mr Meke said he was drawn to the idea of sending trained sign language teachers into remote communities.

“We have to touch the families, encourage them to come to the training, to learn how to communicate, especially with those who are deaf, so they can be able to start within their own families and communicate within their own families, and then go out in the wider community. That’s what I see is important from the initial part of this project,” he said.

This month the project team will begin recruiting their first students, people who are deaf and hearing, to learn sign language at San Isidro Care Centre over three months. A hearing-abled person will be paired up with one deaf graduate to then teach sign language in a remote community.

Dr Jones, who has spent more than a decade leading the unique partnership between ACU and Solomon Islands, is planning to go to the Pacific Island nation once the country’s international borders reopen. She also hopes to take pre-service teachers from ACU to help with the project. She said her work for Solomon Islands had become “very personal”.

“For me it's not just work anymore, but it’s who I am,” Dr Jones said.

“I can use something of the privilege and opportunity that I've had in education to bring something of value to their community, and I've learned and gained far more than I think I've given, that's for sure.”

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