Tasale Edward Bule, a 45-year-old fisher from Vanuatu’s Efate island, remembers the day the world went silent.
“I woke up one morning and remember not hearing the birds sing, or the rooster crowing,” Bule says.
“I asked everyone to call my name to see if I would hear them – it was then I realised I had lost the hearing in both my ears.”
The illness that took his hearing has never been clearly explained to Bule by a doctor. But at 14, and with no access to sign language or disability support, he left school, despite dreaming of one day becoming a pilot or an engineer.
Bule’s story would be familiar to much of the deaf community in the Pacific country of Vanuatu. With no national sign language, most people have to invent their own ways to communicate. Some use signs they’ve developed with their families and communities, but then struggle to communicate outside this group. Others, like Bule, rely largely on lip-reading to get by.
Disability advocates say this leaves the deaf community unable to participate fully in society. The group are also more vulnerable during natural disasters, frequent in Vanuatu. But those behind a new push to create an official language hope to change life for the hard of hearing community in the Pacific nation.
A year after Bule became deaf, a Rotary Club in Vanuatu sent him to New Zealand and he learned the basics of sign language – how to sign the alphabet and his name – but he prefers to lip-read.
“My family knows that they have to get me to look at them when they talk, so I can read their lips: it is the only way I can understand them,’’ he said.
While Bule and his wife say that he has a good life and has been welcomed by the Saama community, where they moved in 2017, there are issues with not being able to communicate broadly with people.
Nelly Caleb, the Vanuatu Disability Promotion and Advocacy Association’s national coordinator, said that the lack of a national sign language left children unable to participate fully in school or society.
“I went to one of the inclusive schools here in Vanuatu to check whether it is actually inclusive, we found out that the child who was deaf was just imitating what the other children did without understanding what they were writing,” said Caleb.
“I realised that the teacher wasn’t interpreting for the deaf boy, and during break time, the way they signalled the child to go out for a break was like you instructing a dog to go out; it’s not very good.”
It’s also particularly dangerous during natural disasters. Vanuatu has in the past been ranked as the most disaster-prone country in the world by the UN.
“We are always left behind because in the villages, people don’t really understand people with disabilities,” said Arthur Simrai, a field officer for the Vanuatu Society for People Living with Disability.
“When disasters strike, like a hurricane or landslide, those who cannot hear or have a disability don’t know what’s going on, so they are left behind.”
Building a language
But the government hopes to fix this. It is currently developing a national sign language, to be called Storian wetem han, or “using hands to communicate”.
The initiative, which is funded by the Global Partnership for Education and the World Bank, has seen officials travel the country collecting signs from deaf people, and filming deaf people signing different words, which will be uploaded to a sign language dictionary software program and turned into a national sign language.
Once developed, Vanuatu would join Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa and Solomon Islands as Pacific nations with a national sign language, though at present Papua New Guinea is the only country where its sign language, Auslan-PNG Sign, is an officially recognised national language.
The government hopes that Storian wetem han will be able to be rolled out fully across the country in 2024.
For now though, Simrai says that many of those living with hearing loss don’t recognise sign language on the rare occasions that they see it.
“Most of the people who can’t hear, they don’t know the sign language on the screen,” he said.
“They have their own sign at home … with their family to signal or communicate what they want … but not everyone in the community know.”
If Vanuatu is able to make a success of its national sign language, Simrai says, it would make an enormous difference to the lives of people who are deaf across the country.