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Australian volunteer gives the gift of language to Kiribati's hearing impaired

Heather Black is an Australia teacher volunteering in Kiribati to develop the country's first sign language dictionary.
Heather Black is an Australia teacher volunteering in Kiribati to develop the country's first sign language dictionary.

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After working as a teacher for 35 years, Australian retiree Heather Black made the bold decision to pack her bags and move to the island nation of Kiribati to volunteer at the country's only special needs school.

"I have always wanted to work overseas and love to travel. Having been retired for three years and spent much of that time travelling I was ready to put my efforts into something useful again," says Heather.

Heather saw a volunteer position advertised with Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) to work in Kiribati as a teacher of the deaf, and was thrilled to think that she could put her years of experience to good use.

Deaf education has always been her first passion, learning sign language after studying to be a teacher of the Deaf in 1978 and becoming fluent in Signed English while working in speech and hearing centres.

She now believes that AUSLAN is the key to communication with deaf students.

"Although AUSLAN and Signed English use many of the same signs, AUSLAN is a more three-dimensional language with its own grammar and is the natural sign language of the Deaf," says Heather.

For the last 15 months Heather has been working at the Kiribati School and Centre for Children with Special Needs to help staff produce the country's first sign language dictionary.

There are around 800 signs in the book with both English and Kiribati translations. Local signs are used for most of the plants and sea life, all the villages of Tarawa and islands of Kiribati and some of the nearby Pacific nations. There are also local signs related to everyday and cultural activities.

Australian teacher Heather Black helped to develop Kiribati's first sign language dictionary.
Australian teacher Heather Black helped to develop Kiribati's first sign language dictionary.

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The first challenge for Heather in developing a sign dictionary was finding deaf people in the community who could contribute to providing consensus on the signs used in Kiribati.

"Most deaf adults lived in their own villages and were not known to each other. There was however a group of young adults who had attended the Gospel School for the Deaf in Fiji. Two of them were already working at the special school where I was based. It was their enthusiasm and perseverance that got the project off the ground."

"As it happened, many of the signs used both in Kiribati and in Fiji are based on AUSLAN and Bilby Publishing kindly gave permission for their images to be used in our local production. That made the job much simpler," says Heather.

The dictionary, though welcomed, is only a first step towards building a deaf community where people share a common language, develop a sense of belonging, build self-confidence and promote an awareness and understanding of deafness within the broader community.

"Members of the wider community are requesting copies and have been attending sign classes conducted by a group of dedicated staff from the special school," says Heather.

Enjoying a laugh
Volunteer Heather Black has found her experience teaching with the staff at the Kiribati School and Centre for Children with Special Needs to be very rewarding.

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The importance of volunteering

Heather is a strong believer in the power of volunteering to make the world a better place.

"Developing countries are in need of expertise in many areas," says Heather.

"We have a surplus of educated, skilled individuals in so many fields. Taking those skills and sharing them with others can make a huge difference."

Heather says for older people such as herself, volunteering is a chance to give a little where it is needed most.

"I think all volunteers must take away at least as much as they give, often much more, in terms of cultural understandings, friendships and personal growth," says Heather.

Her whole experience working with the community of Kiribati has been memorable - from the people she works with, the children at the special school, the community she lives in, and the greetings from people as she rides her bicycle to and from work each day.

"But seeing the Kiribati Deaf Association members dressed in their new club shirts proudly marching before the President on Independence Day was probably the moment that most warmed my heart and is an image that will remain with me forever," says Heather.

For Heather, it has been a privilege to play a part in the process of helping the children to learn, and watch their delight when they make new discoveries.

"Deaf children generally are even more expressive, open, honest and appreciative than hearing children, making them such a pleasure to work with."

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YOUTUBE: Sign language dictionary

Watch the collaboration between the School and Centre for Children with Special Needs & the Kiribati Deaf Association. YouTube: Kiribati Video

International Volunteer Day (IVD) is celebrated annually on 5 December and was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1985. Annually over six million Australians volunteer their time to make their communities a better place. Each year over 500 Australian volunteers travel overseas like Heather, to live and work in local communities as part of the AVID program.

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