What it’s like to be a deaf Peace Corps volunteer
Volunteering for two years in another country is no small undertaking. Imagine doing it with a hearing loss, without the accommodations and support our country provides.
According to the Peace Corps, whose mission is to promote world peace and friendship, at least 60 deaf Peace Corps volunteers served prior to 2015. Since 2001, there have been at least 17 deaf volunteers, and 138 additional volunteers who had some degree of hearing loss.
“Historical volunteer data is difficult to collect as deafness and hearing loss [aren’t] considered medical accommodation[s] and [aren’t] tracked in a standardized way,” the Peace Corps Times reported.
The Peace Corps (PC) motto is “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” Kelly Selznick, Nehama Rogozen, Rachel Chaikof, and Wendy Osterling are a few deaf volunteers who can attest to this.
Applying for the Peace Corps
If hearing loss isn’t disclosed on the PC application, it’s revealed during the required medical examination. Selznick was concerned her deafness would limit the number of countries she was allowed to serve in. At the time (around 2009-2010) people with hearing loss were only allowed to serve in certain countries.
“In the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of countries that people with hearing loss can serve in, which is wonderful,” she says.
She was automatically assigned to the one country that had a deaf education program (Western Kenya in a rural village), but because they had already accepted a deaf PC volunteer (PCV) for that particular country, she had to wait a year before starting her service.
Meanwhile, Rogozen had applied during her senior year of college, with the hope of leaving after graduating in May 2010. She didn’t end up leaving until July 2011.
“I wasn’t the first deaf volunteer that PC had had,” she says, “but I was the first with CIs to be accepted and it took more than a year for us to figure out the logistics of serving my hearing needs and finding a country and program that could meet those needs.
My understanding is that applicants with CIs had been rejected prior to my application; I happened to apply at a time when knowledge about CIs had grown, and I was fortunate to work with someone in the PC medical office who really wanted this to happen.”
“I wasn’t the first deaf volunteer that PC had had, but I was the first with CIs to be accepted…”
Chaikof waited the longest. She first applied in 2009 when she was a senior in college. A few hours after her interview, she found out she was nominated for a technology assignment in a French-speaking country in Africa. However, after submitting pages of medical information, her application was denied five months later on the basis of her disability.
“However, after submitting pages of medical information, her application was denied five months later on the basis of her disability.”
One statement in the PC letter is almost nonsensical: “How will your hearing disability affect the learning of a new language in Peace Corps? You stated that you do not read lips nor understand sign language.” Clearly, the PC didn’t understand cochlear implant technology, since Chaikof is bilaterally implanted.
While Chaikof was appealing the decision, she decided to get her Master’s and put the PC on hold. Shortly after she graduated, she found out that the PC had just accepted two CI recipients for the first time in history. “Hearing the news felt like a huge punch in my gut,” Chaikof wrote on her blog. “If they can do it, then why can’t I do it too?” She felt if she had continued with the appeals process, she would likely have been accepted.
“If they can do it, then why can’t I do it too?”
In 2013, Chaikof applied again. Months later, after trading several emails with the medical office, she received her pre-clearance. Her departure date kept getting pushed back, but finally her formal invitation arrived in April 2014 for a September 2014 departure to Bamenda, the third largest city in Cameroon.
Preparation for the journeys
Osterling was stationed in the Andes Mountains two hours from Rio Bamba in a very rural community as well as in Banos, Ecuador. She had bilateral hearing aids at the time (over 20 years ago). She packed a year-long supply of batteries, and had her parents bring more when they came to visit. She also brought a spare HA just in case.
“She packed a year-long supply of batteries, and had her parents bring more when they came to visit.”
Rogozen was lucky because she was stationed in Ormoc City, Leyte, Phillippines, and there’s a CI clinic in Manila. The PC helped set up mapping appointments and ordered supplies she needed.
“In one hilarious instance,” she recalls, “they switched the quantities I told them I needed for CI batteries (which last 1-2 days), and for dry-briks (used with the dry-n-store, which last two months), meaning that I got two small packs of batteries and a huge box full of dry-briks, which I will probably be using for the rest of my life.”
Prior to leaving, Chaikof coordinated with her audiologist to set up remote mapping because there was no CI center in Cameroon. She also brought spare processors, batteries, coils, cables, and magnets as Cochlear doesn’t ship products outside of the US and Canada.
Reactions from communities
The women experienced various reactions to their deafness. During Osterling’s training, she stayed with a family that had hosted another deaf volunteer a few years earlier who worked at the deaf school. Osterling and her host family often wrote back and forth in Spanish the first few months.
The first community she stayed in was very indigenous and they didn’t understand the extent of her hearing loss. To them, deaf meant deaf and dumb. As a result, Osterling “way underestimated” her deafness when she introduced herself.
Because Selznick taught at a local school for the deaf, the locals were used to interacting with deaf people. When she traveled outside her village, however, a group of people always stared if they saw her signing. “For the most part, they were curious and accepting,” she says.
What was difficult was the attitude that people with disabilities should be hidden, but she says this is changing with education and time.
“What was difficult was the attitude that people with disabilities should be hidden…”
Rogozen’s supervisor at the community organization she worked for had a deaf daughter who signed. “We often talked about what it meant for her daughter to have access to one set of resources and for me to have access to another,” Rogozen recalls. “I often felt guilty about this disparity.”
In Chaikof’s case, the locals were blown away by the fact that there’s technology that allows deaf people to hear. And frankly, they saw her as a foreigner first, not someone with hearing loss.
Communication with locals
When serving in a foreign country, communication naturally becomes a main concern. Osterling had more trouble understanding the indigenous people, but quickly realized that it was because they didn’t speak Spanish as well. They spoke with poor grammar and intermixed with their native Incan Indian language.
Selznick also had trouble lipreading the locals even when they spoke English, because of the local accent. Sign language is her primary mode of communication. This made it easier to communicate with hearing Kenyans than hearing Americans.
Kenyans have several different tribes, and it’s not uncommon for a Kenyan to know a minimum of three different languages. As a result, they’re used to communicating with people from different tribes who may not speak the same language.
“It was extremely easy to have a conversation through gesturing or writing because Kenyans are used to breaking down communication barriers with each other,” says Selznick.
Due to thick accents, Chaikof struggled early on but by continuing to listen, her brain adapted and learned to understand, she says. While communication was challenging, she calls it the least stressful part of her service. “Because I grew up facing communication challenges, I already knew the strategies for handling situations,” she wrote on her blog.
One interesting challenge Rogozen faced was that her host family didn’t quite understand that when she took her CIs off at night, she couldn’t hear them. Chaikof found using the phone challenging because of the different accents and because the phone was of cheaper quality.
When she couldn’t understand the person on the phone, she asked them to text her to ensure she received the correct information. Because texting isn’t as popular in Cameroonian culture, however, she didn’t always get the text. She’d have to ask someone to contact the person for her and relay the information back.
The first two months of training were exhausting. Chaikof remembers being tired from hearing different accents, learning new languages, and listening to lectures for seven hours a day. She made sure to rest after training every day so she had energy to focus the next day.
There was one instance in which Osterling’s deafness was an advantage. She was grateful that she couldn’t hear the local men whistling at the women, as this was something that really irritated the other PC women.
Selznick’s situation was a bit different as she worked at a deaf school. She found it easier to bond with deaf Kenyans since they shared something in common. She also had an advantage because she already had the tools to cope with isolation, feeling left out, and communication barriers simply from being deaf.
Ultimately, their PC experience is one these women wouldn’t trade. Osterling says being deaf put her at a disadvantage with learning a foreign language, but “if you work hard at it, you can do it!” In fact, during her two-year stint, she learned to speak and lipread Spanish so proficiently that she passed the US Government language test. This qualified her for Foreign Service jobs.
“In fact, during her two-year stint, she learned to speak and lipread Spanish…”
Rogozen says the first year is often really difficult, and the second is when things start to come together. “Having a hearing loss (or being a person of color, queer, or older, or any other differentiating identity factor) is just one more challenge on top of this intense experience,” she says, “but it’s an opportunity to really think about your role in the world and work on perseverance.”
Do you have hearing loss and volunteered in the Peace Corps? Let us know in the comments.
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