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City ready to lend more helping hands to deaf-mutes
By Jiao Xiaoyang (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-02-15 06:33

As the capital of the world's most populous country, Beijing never seems to have a problem with its workforce. It enjoys an abundance of people in almost every industry, be it artistic geniuses or construction workers.

The one profession, which is short-handed and also demands delicate hands, is to provide sign language service.

According to the Beijing Disabled Persons' Federation, there are fewer than 1,000 sign language professionals in Beijing, and most are teachers in local schools for the hearing impaired. The 250,000 deaf-mutes living in the city aren't getting much sign language assistance in most restaurants, post offices and hospitals.

"It is a shame to let deaf-mutes live in isolation," said Han Runfeng, deputy director of the federation's communications department.

Sadly, the future looks even bleaker. With the Olympic Games coming in August 2008, Han estimates at least 900 high-calibre sign language professionals will be needed to help deaf-mute visitors.

But currently only a few dozen people in Beijing can handle that job, which requires not only basic communication skills, but also the time to interpret and an understanding of the sign languages of foreign countries.

"It's like scattering a tiny spoon of pepper powder in a huge pot," Han said.

Among the problems in promoting sign language classes are a lack of funds and personnel and the complexity of the language itself.

Beijing has eight schools for the hearing impaired ranging from the primary to the university level, including the Special Education College of Beijing Union University (BUU), one of the few universities in the country offering courses for deaf-mutes.

"These schools are funded by the municipal or district governments to guarantee that deaf-mutes can receive the same education as other people," said Liu Chuan, a teacher with the college and also organizer of the university's sign language society.

"But when it comes to educating a city of 15 million population in sign language, the current resources are far from adequate."

One factor that keeps sign language from becoming a popular study is its complexity. There are many different sign language expressions in different areas, much like spoken dialects.

"I have a classmate from Henan Province, and the first time I communicated with him, I came across many gestures that I didn't understand," said Gu Baisong, a 21-year-old deaf student at BUU who lost his hearing in a childhood accident but can speak in a limited way.

"Many dialects or slang in sign language are difficult to understand. It is important to teach people using a uniform sign language, like putonghua in Chinese."

Although an ordinary person may need only three or four months to learn basic sign language for everyday life situations, it is more difficult to catch others' gestures, which often go slightly outside the standard styles in textbooks, according to Gu, who is also a member of BUU's sign language society.

What's more, to understand the sign language used by an American or a Japanese is the same as having to learn a spoken foreign language and would require special training, he added.

Despite all the difficulties, the Beijing Disabled Persons' Federation is excited about promoting the wider use of sign language in the city. It will offer free training classes for 1,000 sign language volunteers this year.

The federation has allocated a special budget for the training programme, and many teachers in local schools for the hearing impaired, including some retired, have volunteered to teach, said Cheng Hai, vice-chairman of the Beijing Deaf-Mutes' Association, a subsidiary of the disabled persons' federation that is responsible for the programme.

"We haven't finished the detailed plan of the programme, but to my surprise, since we announced the programme, there have been hundreds of phone calls inquiring about the admission criteria of the classes, including Heilongjiang Province," Cheng said.

The purpose of the training, he said, is not to produce sign language virtuosos but to help more people to be able to understand and use it for basic communication with deaf-mutes.

"From an economic point of view, you cannot expect every company to hire full-time sign language professionals to take care of the contingent visits of deaf customers," he said. "It's better to have people working in these places know at least some sign language skills."

Several major department stores and entertainment sites in town, including the Friendship Store at the Lufthansa Shopping Centre, Pacific Department Store and the Beijing Aquarium, already have sign language service.

A press liaison at Pacific Department Store said all the shop assistants in the department store are trained with basic sign language skills. There are also several staff members with advanced sign language credentials.

One reason Beijing shops are faring well in sign language assistance, Han said, is that the Beijing Chamber of Commerce has commissioned the disabled persons' federation to train enough people to make sure there is at least one sign language assistant on each floor of a major department store or in each smaller store by 2008.

Other places offering services, such as banks and hospitals, are still lagging behind, Han added.

The China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Chaoyang District does not have sign language service so far. "Probably it's because the need is niche, and we haven't noticed an overall need," an administrative assistant said. "But it's certainly an issue that deserves more attention."

Han remained hopeful that sign language can gain wider acceptance in society, as more and more young people have shown enthusiasm in learning it. About 30 universities in Beijing now have sign language societies, Han noted.

"I chose to learn some sign language because I thought it was interesting and was a useful skill," said Ding Peng, a student in the sign language society of the Beijing University of Aviation and Aeronautics.

"But the real stunning part is when you are able to use it to communicate with deaf-mutes. It feels as if a barrier to understanding is eliminated."

According to Gu of BUU, his society alone has provided training help to the sign language societies in eight other universities.

"Each of the societies has at least 100 members, and it makes me feel very proud to teach them my language," Gu said.

The disabled persons' federation held sign language competitions in 2004 and 2005. About half of the competitors were university students, but others were from shops, schools for the deafs and welfare businesses, Han said.

"My wish is that everyone everywhere can learn some sign language," he said. "That would not only make deaf people's lives easier but also enrich our social culture."

(China Daily 02/15/2006 page5)

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