Literacy for Deaf Immigrant Adults: A Symposium for Collaboration and Learning held on May 11, was a unique event, the first of its kind in Western Canada. It brought together people from a variety of sectors such as education (Bow Valley College, Calgary Board of Education, University of Alberta, Vancouver Community College), immigrant-serving agencies (Centre for Newcomers, Calgary Immigrant Aid, Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, Immigrant Language and Vocational Assessment Referral Centre (ILVARC), agencies serving the Deaf (Deaf and Hard of Hearing Society, Calgary Association for the Deaf) as well as other non-profit agencies (Calgary Learns, Catholic Family Services) and private consultants (D.G. Mason Consultants).
The room was filled with positive energy as participants eagerly shared stories about their experiences working with Deaf immigrants as well as information and resources. There was an emphasis on valuing the skills and experiences that Deaf immigrants bring with them from their home countries, including their knowledge base and desire to integrate into Canadian society the same as many other immigrants. There was a genuine interest in the room in helping these immigrants build the language skills (both American Sign Language and English as a Second Language) they need in order to be successful in Canada.
Bow Valley College instructor and researcher, Brent Novodvorski, opened the day by sharing the results of his applied research project, “Effective techniques and tools for immigrant Deaf adults in bilingual bicultural (ASL and English) literacy programs”. Two Bow Valley College students who have taken the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program at the college talked about their experiences.
Roua El Hacha talked about her experiences growing up as a Deaf person in Lebanon and how she found Canadian culture more inclusive. Osama Yassin, a native of Iraq who grew up in Liberia, shared that he was unable to communicate with his family due to his unique language needs, using gestures to get across basic ideas, but was never able to have meaningful conversations with them until he learned sign language. They are currently enrolled in ESL classes and ASL for Academic Purposes at Bow Valley College. They reported the urgent need to expand the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Adult Learners program into full time studies. Both students expressed a desire to give back by becoming educators themselves.
The keynote speaker, Dr. Dave Mason, talked about literacy from a Deaf perspective, noting that literacy has traditionally been seen as reading and writing, but can and should go beyond that to include other types of literacy, such as financial literacy, working with computers and even signing. He challenged the participants to re-think the sign that is currently used to indicate literacy, proposing that perhaps it does not adequately represent the scope of what it means to be literate.
Aastrid Evansen-Flanjak, an instructor at Vancouver Community College, gave a presentation on their very successful Deaf and Hard of Hearing program, which has a 36-year history and serves almost 100 students (ten times the number of students currently served at BVC) from 21 countries.
Participants explored questions and issues around literacy for Deaf immigrants and spent time formulating an action plan. The plan included developing a community information kit that can be used by agencies to refer Deaf immigrants to the appropriate programs and services.
Some participants committed to following up on the action plan to continue the work generated at the symposium and moving forward to expand the resources and services available.