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Scholar Researching Life in Cambodia’s Deaf Community

Erin Harrelson is having a conversation using handwriting with a deaf sister of Mr. Youk Chhang at her house. (Photo provided by Erin Harrelson)
Erin Harrelson is having a conversation using handwriting with a deaf sister of Mr. Youk Chhang at her house. (Photo provided by Erin Harrelson)

Editor’s note: Erin Moriarty Harrelson, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at American University, is one of the five researchers who received a Fullbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship this year. She is now in Cambodia, working to document the lives of deaf people in rural areas. Given that deaf people in Cambodia lack the opportunity for better access to education and other benefits from Cambodia’s development, Harrelson, who is also deaf, hopes that her study will provide data and the necessary tools to assist policy makers and NGOs in doing their work to improve the lives of deaf people in rural Cambodia. VOA Khmer recently conducted an email interview with her about her project.

VOA: Why did you choose Cambodia to carry out your research project?

Erin Moriarty Harrelson: I have always been fascinated by Cambodia because of Angkor Wat and its other archeological wonders. For a time, I wanted to be an archeologist and was fascinated by ancient civilizations. More recently, as I started my doctorate program in anthropology, I read a newspaper article about the history of sign language and deaf people in Cambodia. This article stated that there was no evidence of a national sign language and a deaf community until NGOs arrived after the UNTAC period. I had a hard time believing these claims, and I was intrigued by the implications of the recent history of Cambodian Sign Language in terms of identity and community development.

I wanted to see for myself what was really happening here so I came here for the first time in 2009 with my husband. We met a deaf woman working as a vendor in a market in Siem Reap, but I didn’t recognize her as deaf at first because she was communicating so well with her customers. My husband told me that she was deaf and I said, “How do you know?” He explained that he could hear it in her voice. I was amazed because this vendor was very efficient with bargaining and a tough negotiator. It made me think more about the function of a standardized language and how a shared language is not always necessary for efficient communication. I was compelled to come back to carry out a research project and have been here several times for fieldwork for my dissertation.

Erin Harrelson is in the field with her interpreter conducting interviews with deaf people in the communes outside Phnom Penh. (Photo provided by Erin Harrelson)
Erin Harrelson is in the field with her interpreter conducting interviews with deaf people in the communes outside Phnom Penh. (Photo provided by Erin Harrelson)

VOA: What do you hope to achieve from your project?

Erin Moriarty Harrelson: I hope to help raise awareness about deaf people in Cambodia and their everyday lives. I also plan to develop material that deaf people here and the NGOs that work with them can use to advocate for themselves. I also hope to develop a better understanding of the situation of deaf people in Cambodia, their families and communities. Some NGOs have asked me to share my data to better guide their work and I look forward to being able to share with them what I can so they can better support deaf people in Cambodia. I also hope to help spark discussions about how deaf people in rural areas can be better served or get the access/education they need.

VOA: Given your disability, what are the challenges you have had so far in carrying out your project?

Erin Moriarty Harrelson: Ironically, I seem to have an easier time communicating with everyday people here in Cambodia. To date, I have not really experienced much discrimination because I am deaf. My biggest challenge is with access. Television shows are not closed captioned so I can't really watch TV here. I don't have access to video relay services, which is a service I use to make telephone calls through a sign language interpreter, so I've had to ask my hearing friends to call for pizza for me from time to time. I don't eat as much delivery food here as I do in the US because of the inability to use the phone, which is probably better for my health anyway!

I have no problems navigating everyday life, communicating with tuk-tuk about where I need to go and vendors at the market.

My biggest challenges with communication are in a more “official” capacity when I need to interview or meet with English-speaking people who do not sign. I am very lucky to have had such incredible support from the two main NGOs I am working with here, Deaf Development Programme and Krousar Thmey. DDP has been especially generous with their staff, time and resources, especially in terms of providing me access in different ways. One of my biggest challenges is the fact that there is not an ASL interpreter available in Cambodia so I have had to find creative ways to communicate with non-signers. The Fulbright Program and the US State Department has been wonderful about allowing me to fly in ASL interpreters from the United States so I can be most effective as I make my way through the NGO sector in Phnom Penh, meeting with key leaders and officials from the Royal Government of Cambodia. More recently, my CSL has improved to the point where I can use CSL interpreters with Khmer-English translators but it remains challenging because of how long the interpreting process can take. It has been challenging where access and communication is concerned but support from the U.S. Fulbright Program and the US Embassy in Phnom Penh has allowed me to work around these challenges. I do not have the same access as a hearing person does but there are ways to work around that with careful planning and support of the right people. The people I have met here have been very generous in many ways, sharing their lives and resources with me and I am eternally grateful for that. I don’t think I would have had this level of success without the Fulbright Program’s weight behind me and their recognition of the importance of this work.

Erin Harrelson in her Khmer traditional clothes is attending a traditional Khmer wedding ceremony of a deaf couple. (Photo provided by Erin Harrelson)
Erin Harrelson in her Khmer traditional clothes is attending a traditional Khmer wedding ceremony of a deaf couple. (Photo provided by Erin Harrelson)

VOA: To this point, what have you learned about deaf people in Cambodia? Do you think they are equally treated and given equal opportunity to education and benefits from development?

Erin Moriarty Harrelson: I have learned that deaf people face huge challenges because of the language issue. Many families don’t recognize their child is deaf until the developmental stage of language acquisition. At the point, the family often doesn’t know where to go for help. Many families spend their savings on medication and traditional healers, hoping to cure their child. At that point, because they don’t know about Cambodian Sign Language or the programs that provide education in sign language, they just do their best to love the child and take care of them. Some families develop ways of communicating through gestures, pointing and drawing and some don’t.

Many deaf people live in the provinces or where there isn’t a program for deaf people so the family either needs to move or send their child where the program is: Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham, Kampot, Siem Reap and Battambang. Many families are afraid to send their children so far from home and distrustful of NGOs because of fears of human trafficking. Often, they don’t want to send their deaf child to one of the NGOs that educate deaf people because it is just too far from home. Recently, I joined DDP’s outreach team as they traveled out to communes in rural areas. Invariably, the family always says, yes, we want our deaf child to get an education but the program is too far away.

Deaf people do not have the same access to education as their hearing peers, especially if they are sent to schools where the teacher does not sign or does not understand how to work with deaf people. Deaf people are uncannily resourceful, though. They will often find a way to get what they need but social and logistical barriers sometimes make it really difficult.

VOA: Compared to deaf people in Cambodia, do you think there are any instances where you feel that you were treated better than them, given that you are a Western researcher and a tourist?

Erin Moriarty Harrelson: Definitely. I was definitely treated better as a deaf person because of my position as a white person from the United States. I think I was treated better for two main reasons: people assume I have money because I am a foreigner and because they know I am educated. When I go out to the villages, people are always shocked to learn that I am deaf and can write. Oftentimes, people will exclaim, “There are deaf foreigners too?” Many people can’t believe that there are deaf foreigners too. People have gathered around me, standing over my shoulder to watch me take notes and comment on how quickly I can write in English. I laugh and tell them, well, I haven’t managed to become fluent in written Khmer yet so I’m not as bright as you think I am!

VOA: Lastly, how would you describe your experience communicating with other deaf people in local communities across Cambodia? How well do you understand each other by using sign language?

Erin Moriarty Harrelson: I have learned Cambodian Sign Language and can communicate well with other deaf people using CSL. There isn’t really a universal sign language, but I do think that knowing one sign language makes it easier to learn another sign language. We understand each other very well but whenever we run into trouble, my deaf friends are very patient with me, repeating themselves or looking around us for physical objects or acting out examples so I understand what the sign they are using means. I am very lucky to have been welcomed as a peer and deaf people in Cambodia have been very generous with their time, teaching me sign language, and being patient with my mangled signing. The longer I am here, the easier it becomes to feel more fluent in CSL.