International Symposium on Technology and Deaf Education

Rochester, United States

This year marks the tenth since the inception of the PEN-International network. I would like to extend my heartfelt appreciation to all those who have worked so hard to establish and develop this invaluable network: Professor James J. DeCaro, NTID interim president; Professor E. William Clymer, interim director for PEN-International; the staff of PEN-International and the many international partners from China, Japan, Philippines, Russia, Czech Republic, Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam. I also wish to thank the PEN-International secretariat for organizing this symposium.

As I am sure you are all very familiar with the significance of PEN-International and its outstanding achievements, today I will focus on the activities and goals of The Nippon Foundation in support of deaf people.

The Nippon Foundation, the largest private foundation in Japan, was established in 1962 by my late father, Ryoichi Sasakawa. To date it has conducted activities for the public good in over 100 countries, in fields such as social welfare, education, and medical care. The guiding principle of our activities is laid down in our founder’s words ‘The World is One Family; All Mankind are Brothers and Sisters’. This means that everyone on Earth has the same fundamental right to live as an equal in society, and that no-one should ever be discriminated against for any reason.

Working in line with this principle, we have made the best possible use of our status as a private foundation to bring light and hope to areas beyond the reach of government and international institutions. Representative examples of our work would include our projects to eliminate leprosy from the world, to improve primary healthcare through traditional medicine in ASEAN countries, and our SG2000 project, which brings food to the people of Africa through improvements in agricultural technique.

About 20 years ago, The Nippon Foundation began supporting projects related to deaf people, and we are particularly proud of our work as a leading foundation in this area. At the time we began providing support for the deaf, few governments or international institutions were dealing with deaf issues. Many deaf people were living without a social safety net, and their life choices were controlled by hearing society. Faced with this situation, we asked ourselves “What can we do to change this?”

I am not an expert in the field of deafness. However, I have over 40 years’ experience in activities to eliminate leprosy. Though it has been feared since ancient times, leprosy has had an effective cure since the 1980s. With early diagnosis and appropriate treatment, people can recover without any lasting physical effects. Yet, because of deep-rooted prejudice and discrimination, people affected by leprosy still face many barriers to social participation.

Discrimination against persons affected by leprosy started because of the disease. But today, the disease is not the reason why they cannot participate in society. The root cause is the social structure, shaped over long years, that prevents them from making decisions and choices about their lives.

The same could be said of deaf people. That is to say, almost every decision concerning deaf people is still today made by the hearing society.

This is the starting point of our support in the field of deafness. Our aim is to create a framework that allows deaf people to make their own choices for their own lives and to enable them to participate in society.

I’m sure you would all agree that one of the fundamental rights deaf people are denied is to choose how they communicate. When it was decreed at the 1880 Milan Conference that the oral method was preferable to sign language, this method became the norm in deaf education. As a result, the majority of deaf children did not understand what their families, friends and teachers were saying. Of course, the oral method has had some success. However, the fact that deaf children could not use sign language, which they themselves wanted, was a denial of their rights. It was a barrier to their access to education.

To utilize deaf students’ natural linguistic abilities and enable them to receive a basic education via the method they prefer, The Nippon Foundation has begun a bilingual deaf education program in Vietnam. This program, is directed by Dr. James Woodward and Ms. Hoa Nguyen. It provides secondary and tertiary education to deaf students, with sign language as the primary language of instruction and Vietnamese as the supportive language for reading and writing. When we began this program ten years ago, there was not one deaf person in Vietnam who had graduated from middle school. Now eleven individuals are enrolled in university. They are studying hard to become elementary school teachers who will support the next generation of deaf children in Vietnam.

However, this kind of bilingual education for the deaf requires teachers who are proficient in sign language, as well as certified sign language interpreters. As they are few and far between, we have to train more. Accordingly, we began supporting the Asia Pacific Sign Linguistics and Research Program in Hong Kong. This program provides opportunities for both deaf and hearing individuals from the Asia-Pacific region to study the development of sign language teaching materials and dictionaries, as well as instruction methods that use sign language.

I am happy to report that all of these projects are starting to bear fruit. However, the situation regarding educational opportunities for the deaf still has much room for improvement. A few years ago, it came to our attention that even in countries that offer a basic education to the deaf, the participation of deaf individuals in society was not progressing. Why was this so? Although many deaf people had the academic ability for an advanced degree, their opportunities to participate in post secondary education were limited. Furthermore, most institutes of higher education did not have the facilities that would allow deaf students to study and go on to achieve their goals.

To provide promising deaf individuals from developing countries with opportunities to study at universities with full information access for deaf students, The Nippon Foundation established a scholarship fund at NTID and Gallaudet University in 1992. Furthermore, the foundation began supporting PEN-International in 2001 as a means to promote the sharing of knowledge and develop instructional technology to improve higher education and career prospects for deaf students. In the ten years since its inauguration, this network has grown considerably. Of the partner countries involved in this project, several have received public assistance and are continuing their activities independently. This linkage between our support and public support, and the spread of opportunities for the deaf, is precisely what we had hoped to achieve through this project. In that sense, it has been a resounding success.

By providing support in the neediest areas, we have tried to achieve true social participation for deaf people. Yet, can we really say we have addressed the underlying problem? The number of deaf people who receive a proper education and who are very capable has increased. However, there are few cases outside of the developed countries where deaf people have taken a leadership role in society. Even in developed countries, deaf people tend to be found in predictable roles, and headmasters or teachers in deaf schools are usually hearing. On top of that, adaptability and assimilation into a hearing society is still seen as the number one priority, and little attention is paid to developing the true potential of deaf people or giving them the life that they want to lead.

So what is missing? To achieve a society where deaf people have every opportunity to use their natural skills and abilities, we have to topple an invisible enemy. One more formidable than we have taken on before. This enemy is the structure of society and ingrained stereotypes.

This is the challenge we now face.

Being in the private sector, The Nippon Foundation can act more flexibly than governments or international organizations. Furthermore, we are able to use our diplomatic power to appeal directly to the very top of the government for change in national policies. Developing countries tend to prioritize economic growth and pay less attention to creating necessary policies for the disabled. However, it is our mission to support neglected areas, and we have a degree of diplomatic power at our disposal. In line with this mission, we began supporting efforts to enact a new national disability law in Vietnam, which will soon come into force.
Another part of our challenge is to show the world examples of how deaf people can succeed. We are trying to overturn a prejudice shared by most societies, namely, that “deaf people should accept limits on their opportunities for education and employment.”

In 2008, we welcomed Mr. Minoru Yoshida, who was previously working at PEN-International, into our foundation. Having considerable experience in multi-national cooperation, he now plays a central role not only in our support for the deaf in developing countries but also in many of our other international aid programs.

Meanwhile, in a cross-disability initiative, we are proceeding with a plan to establish the world’s first graduate school of public policy on disability issues. The school is a virtual, on-line school for distance learning, with a central office in the ASEAN region, and it will be established in fall 2011 in a multi-party partnership with the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, American University, the International Council of Education with Visual Impairment and NTID. At this graduate school, we are hoping to foster leaders among persons with disabilities. In constructing this school, we have been very grateful for the generous support of NTID’s Professor James J. DeCaro.

Over the years, PEN-International has brought hope to a huge number of deaf individuals who were denied opportunities for higher education. Yet, we still have a long way to go. Those of you gathered here today are our partners in bringing together the worlds of the hearing and the deaf. Let me ask of you one favor. Please spread the word about the many fine projects that you carry out. Experience has taught me that patient and steady public relations efforts are critical in reversing national and social stereotypes. At the same time, we must try to help talented young deaf individuals enter society and make society aware of their true potential.

I look forward to continuing to work with you in order to create a society in which deaf individuals have equal opportunities, achieve their career goals, fulfill their potential, and enjoy a lifestyle that is decided not by their hearing capacity and ability in speech, but by their considerable and admirable talents.