Gallaudet University celebrates deaf peace corps volunteers

A group of deaf Peace Corps volunteers wants to encourage other deaf Americans to apply for the program.

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Darcy White taught deaf students in a Kenyan village about three hours north of Nairobi fro 2003 to 2005. Many of them never learned sign language and could only communicate through basic gestures.

“A lot of the teachers of the deaf don't even sign. I would offer sign language classes but they were pretty apathetic to it,” White recalls.

Since the Peace Corp launched in 1961, nearly 60 deaf Americans have served the program in countries around the world. Many of them were students at Gallaudet University, which opened a museum exhibition dedicated to the deaf volunteers.

“We didn't know any of their sign language when we got there. We had to learn right away,” describes former Peace Corps volunteer Pauline Spanbauer.

The earliest volunteers say they were shocked by the treatment of deaf people in their mission countries.

“Most of them are hidden, they don't go to school. Their parents are ashamed of them so you never see them,” said William Eiffler.

“When we told them we were college educated, they couldn't believe we had degrees from GU. We were very proud of that. We were showing them what deaf people can do,” Spanbauer said.

More recent participants say some of that prejudice still exists, with many natives not believing they were actually deaf.

“They would see my English writing and not believe a deaf person could write so well,” said Sarah Gordon.

After two years in their host country, many say they saw a change in both the deaf and the hearing villagers they worked with. Returned volunteers are encouraging current students at Gallaudet to apply to the Peace Corps.

“There are plenty of opportunities around the world. The world is calling us to help,” Spanbauer said.

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