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Travel Story by Ian Reynolds

  Meeting Deaf Tibetans
Lhasa, Tibet

Lhamo, Dawa Lhaji, Lhazhen & Wujing Zhoga

Just round the corner from my hotel I noticed the prominent blue sign for the Tibetan Deaf Association (TDA) Sewing Workshop. A few of my friends had not met any Deaf Tibetans in Lhasa when they had visited Tibet. It was an ideal opportunity to see for myself whether the Deaf people there were part of the new influx of Chinese people into the city or had lived in Tibet all their lives. The opening of the new railway from Beijing to Lhasa last summer (July 2006) meant what was once a trickle of immigrants has now become a flood as the government provides financial incentives for those who settle there.

On my last day I paid them a visit but finding the exact location of the workshop was not an easy task. Even though the sign is displayed on East Beijing Road just after Qingnian Road, you still have to negotiate your route through a small alley and enter an open courtyard on your right, home to a big block of apartments. But instead of entering the courtyard you ascend the staircase to the 4th floor where there is a small sign above the door on the right hand side indicating that you are at the right place. It is next door to the Blind Massage Centre.

There is a doorbell but it does not appear to work as nobody answered. Flashing doorbell lights and pagers are still a few years away! I tried opening the door and knocked hard a few times but to no avail. One of the neighbours noticed my predicament and opened the door for me. I knocked again prior to entry and walked in.

There were several workers in the main office and they looked up as I made my entrance. I introduced myself by signing to them and they were delighted and astonished that a deaf person/tourist was visiting. They soon made me very welcome and I spent a couple of hours in their company.

The Tibetan Deaf Association (TDA) Sewing Workshop began in April 2004. It is the vocational training component of the Tibetan Sign Language Project (TSL), which was set up in 2001 under the supervision of Handicap International.

Currently it employs seven full time Deaf workers. The sewing workshop has a strong commitment to creating high quality and innovative products not found elsewhere in the marketplace.

Lhamo, from Lhasa, with her snazzy glasses and keen fashion sense is a real character and it was no surprise to learn that she is the supervisor. And there's also Wujing Zhoga from Samye, Dawa Lhaji from Zangdo, and Lhazhen. Only four members of staff were in the workshop that day.

They showed me examples of their work and we were soon interrupted by some more visitors, two ladies from the International Association of Special Education, one American and one Canadian. A guide had brought them to the workshop to buy some samples of their work.

Lhamo asked me to stay while she showed the two ladies what products were available before making a sale. Obviously it is not every day they get a deaf foreign visitor and I probably was the first to visit their workshop.

The two hours passed in a blur and we talked about the Tibetan culture, their way of life and many other things. They were interested in what life is like for Deaf people back in the UK. Deaf marriages was one topic talked about and they couldn't believe the freedom we have in choosing our partner. In Tibet things are changing slowly - the first Deaf marriage took place recently, they get subtitled films (DVDs) and they are getting more access to information (from a Deaf perspective). The pace of change is slow and although things have improved it is a long way away from the privileges we enjoy in the UK.

It was apparent that several of the workers have come from remote and isolated parts of Tibet (e.g. Zangdo) where they were the only deaf person in their village. Living in Lhasa has made a huge difference to them where they have come into contact with other Deaf Tibetans. In Tibet they even have their own sign language which is a distinct and separate language.

While Handicap International provides any necessary support they are left to run the place for themselves which I found pleasing. However, a cut of each week's takings must be set aside for the government.

I learnt that there was no sign for Tibet but the sign for Lhasa is where the right hand with thumb stretched out makes a circular motion over the outstretched palm of the left hand (like rubbing the floor) before moving the thumb upwards towards the base of the left hand (like a thumbs up sign). This symbolises the making of tsampa, the staple food of Tibetan people.

While I was there I had an endless supply of jasmine tea. There was also much laughter as we indulged in some lighthearted banter. Soon it was 6.30pm, closing time, and time for them to go home. But before I left they gave me a gift of a T-shirt and the TDA 2007 calendar.

After the logistical nightmare in getting a Tibetan Travel Permit for Lhasa I did not know what to expect and whether there would be any form of censorship. My fears proved unfounded and I had a very pleasant afternoon in the company of Deaf Tibetans. It was probably the most enjoyable afternoon during my week in Tibet.

Additional photos can be found at:

More information about the TDA and their partnership with Handicap International is given in the press release (2006) below:

The Tibetan Sign Language Project (TSL) in Lhasa was established in September 2001. The purpose of setting up this project was to standardise existing sign language, develop new signs for deaf people in Tibet and thus enhance communication amongst deaf Tibetans. Tibetan Sign Language is also being promoted among the hearing community in Tibet in order to strengthen connections between deaf and hearing people. The project also seeks to raise awareness of deafness in the community as well as building the capacity of deaf adults in order to greatly assist their lives in the community.

Over the last five years, the Special School and the Speech Therapy Department of the Tibet Disabled Person's Federation have been counterparts of the TSL project. Originally lack of communication and information exchange slowed down the process of cooperation, but now, several years of collaboration have brought more understanding and trust to the relationship, especially with the Special School. Further close collaboration is expected.

The project has found that raising awareness of deafness in the community is a great challenge. However, over the years more and more deaf and hearing people are receiving information about our Tibetan Sign Language project through various local media, such as newspapers, TV stations, etc.

The Tibetan Sign Language Project has published two Tibetan Sign Language Dictionaries (No1 and No 2). In 2005, three Tibetan Sign Language textbooks were compiled and published. These textbooks have received very positive feedback from deaf people, especially from deaf children in the Special School. There has also been positive feedback from hearing people. In 2005, two Tibetan Sign Language dictionaries were made into VCDs and eleven sign stories were compiled and made into VCD and storybook forms. We have also received a big demand for the two different forms of our 2006 calendar produced by the project. The Tibetan Sign Language Dictionary No 3 will be published very shortly.

In 2005, we began the process of establishing the Tibet Deaf Association. A study tour of Nepal was organized because the Nepali National Federation of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing has been established for over 20 years and they have well-established structures all over Nepal. The tour was a great success and the Core Group of the Tibetan Sign Language Project absorbed a great deal of information during the visit. A Mini-Sewing Workshop started running at the end of 2005 and has received many orders from various customers.

In the first half of 2006, we hope to organize more meetings with TDPF and speed up the process of formal establishment of the Tibet Deaf Association. Handicap International will sign an agreement with the Deaf Association with the aim of localisation of the TSL project. With this in mind, Handicap International will provide relevant training to assist the Core Group in this aim. The Deaf Association will also establish a functional structure and thus improve its organizational status. A further priority is for the Deaf Association to seek out sustainable local support for its activities.

The Deaf Association will continue developing Tibetan Sign Language material in 2006. We hope to compile and distribute VCDs of our Tibetan Sign Language dictionary No 3 - and two further Tibetan sign stories. The 2007 TSL Calendar will be completed before September and will be on sale to the general public. Money raised from these sales will be used to provide support for the Deaf Association.

Click on photo to enlarge

Sign for TDA Sewing Workshop  The sewing room  Examples of their work

Date Submitted:
10 Jul 2007

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