Imagine what life is like as a deaf person in a developing country like Nepal, India, or Tanzania. Davin Searls and David Justice of Discovering Deaf Worlds have committed their lives to finding out! In addition, they are working to support local grassroots leaders and organizations that are making the world a better place for deaf people.
Searls and Justice are both from Rochester, New York, but they first met in China in 2007. Searls was working as a teacher of deaf students at Changchun University for ten months. Justice traveled to China with Christy Smith, a deaf contestant from “Survivor, The Amazon.” After returning to Rochester, NY from a year abroad, the seeds for an international deaf advocacy non-profit organization were planted.
Searls is deaf and from a deaf family. He attended Sarah Lawrence College and studied literature and film history. “After college, I went to look for a job in the states, but I wasn’t satisfied with what I found,” said Searls. “I did some networking, and found an opportunity to teach in China. It was a wonderful experience–the deaf community is very welcoming there.” Searls quickly discovered that deaf and hard of hearing individuals in China were faced with daily challenges. “Without government support and limited jobs, some resorted to stealing or selling wares on the street just to survive,” he explained.
Justice graduated from college with a degree in sociology and began to learn American Sign Language. “I’m the typical hearing person–no deaf friends while growing up, no deaf individuals in my family nor did I know anyone who was deaf. I was in college when I met a deaf friend for the first time.” Justice worked as an interpreter for a couple years. He met Smith at the Aspen Camp for the Deaf and they began to travel to developing countries.
“We met Davin just a few months into our trip, which fueled our passion to learn more about international deaf communities.. When we arrived back in Rochester, we all agreed that there was a need for advocacy for Deaf residents of developing countries. That’s how Discovering Deaf Worlds was born.”
Discovering Deaf Worlds is a non-profit that is dedicated to empowering deaf and hard of hearing individuals in developing countries. “There are not many international deaf advocacy organizations out there,” said Justice. “At Discovering Deaf Worlds, we aim to bring equal attention to issues and solutions for improving the lives of deaf people in developing countries. We also provide basic guidance on program development and connect people within our network to help bring about change.”
Searls continued, “We reinforce the implementation of these solutions by advising these organizations in fund development, organizational management, and connecting them with the people or resources that they need.”
Discovering Deaf Worlds has partnered with the Department of Cultural and Creative Studies at National Technical Institute for the Deaf at RIT to provide unique study abroad programs in Costa Rica, Thailand and Cambodia. The trips are part adventure, and part proactive involvement -providing the opportunity for deaf students to connect with international deaf leaders and organizations in developing countries under the framework of a for-credit Global Deaf Cultural Studies course. The groups are small in number so that relationships can develop between the students and the people in the other countries.
“Our role is equally important after the trips- as these organizations continue to develop their advocacy strategies, DDW provides support, asks the right questions, and gets them thinking about the big picture.” said Searls. “We help them realize that they have all the resources they need – they just need to look for them.” There’s a quote by Lao Tzu that accurately describes DDW’s work: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
One of DDW’s most memorable trips was to Nepal, a village in the Himalayan Mountains. There, they met Suresh Shahi, deaf guide and president of the Kathmandu Deaf Association. DDW learned that deaf children in Nepal have very little or no resources for learning language and as a result, they have a very difficult time communicating and expressing themselves. Families often cannot afford to send their children to a school for the deaf and the prevalent attitude is one that places very little value on deaf children.
“As we passed through remote villages along the Annapuma Circuit, people would often stare, laugh and point at us because we were communicating in sign language,” said Justice. “While most people would ignore this or become angry, Suresh saw it as an opportunity to educate. He would start writing notes in Nepali and explain that he was deaf, not dumb–and within a few minutes, their demeanor would change from belittling to respectful.”
Discovering Deaf Worlds is a true passion for Justice and Searls. They live simple lives themselves and all of their efforts are completely voluntary. They hope to start a ripple that will resonate through communities all over the world. “Not many people are aware of issues surrounding global deaf communities– we want to create awareness and support for these communities in developing countries,” said Justice. “We want to give back- and provide a means for others to join us in this effort.”