SALTer learns Arabic sign language and Braille
Mennonite Central Committee volunteer works in Jordanian deaf-blind unit.by Patricia (Trish) Edwards-Konic
Brent Stutzman is special, says Andrew de la Carpentier, director of the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in Salt in Jordan.
Stutzman, a Mennonite from Hutchinson, Kan., is working through Mennonite Central Committee’s SALT program as a volunteer for three years. After earning a biology degree from Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., he decided it was time to “take a leap out of my comfort zone and context and commit myself to serving others.”
Brent Stutzman, right, is an MCC volunteer at a school in Salt, Jordan. Director Andrew de la Carpentier, center, watches Muhammad, left, as he selects the Braille card for a food he will eat for lunch. Marley Mendoza, press tour member, is in the background. Photo by Trish Konic.
Stutzman volunteered in Jordan at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf to work with correspondence, English curriculum or vocational training. The Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, was founded in 1964. Since then, it has been in an almost continual state of expansion, trying to meet some of the great needs in Jordan and throughout the Middle East.
Instead, Stutzman found himself assigned to the deaf-blind unit and specifically to Muhammad, a 16-year-old student. Knowing nothing about deaf-blind education and little if any Arabic, he says, “I was thrown into the fire.” The deaf-blind unit, developed eight years ago, is now home to eight children. Muhammad is one of the original two boys who opened the unit. The first week Stutzman watched and observed. The second week he began working. The third week the students had a vacation, so he spent it reading and learning what he could before the break was over.
Stutzman began learning Arabic sign language and Arabic Braille in order to communicate with Muhammad. But Muhammad had “language with form but not function.” He didn’t understand how to use language to communicate his needs or thoughts. He could “memorize massive amounts of concepts and conversation but used it as a programmed response.”
Now halfway through his three-year commitment, Stutzman continues to create an Arabic deaf-blind curriculum, the first in Jordan and maybe in the Arabic world.
With no Arabic model to follow, he says, “I have had a long road of many failures. I spent the first eight months in orientation, just learning, as I began developing my own program. The challenge is staying one step ahead of Muhammad while continuing to learn Arabic, set goals and evaluate them and develop activities for learning.”
But it is evident from the progress of his student that he has achieved a shorter road to success. When his zipper is stuck, for instance, Muhammad has learned to ask for help from other students rather than just standing helplessly. When he notices something missing, like his pillow, he asks for it. These are major achievements for a young man who knew words but did not know how to use them to communicate.
Although Stutzman works in a one-on-one situation, his intention is to help change cultural outlooks about what it means to be disabled. No longer left in a room by themselves, the students at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf are not perceived as helpless. Muhammad can now “go to the store, pick out a soda and pay for it himself.”
Stutzman’s goal is to have the family and community see the potential in each child, causing a paradigm shift in perception.
“People outside the school do not see his potential,” he says. “His disability should not define who he is.” Muhammad’s grandfather took a sign language course, and now his mother is learning sign language. They are expanding their communication with him when he goes home on weekends.
“Finding out what it means to serve has been a great challenge,” Stutzman says.
Patricia (Trish) Edwards-Konic is currently the pastor of two rural Quaker churches in southeast Colorado. She previously was editor of Quaker Life magazine and Friends United Press. She participated in a press tour sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board in March.
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