We all take our senses for granted but what would happen if you lost your hearing or were unable to speak? This inspiring group is out to ensure that everyone in our society has a voice.
According to the World Health Organization, by 2050 more than 900 million people around the world will have disabling hearing loss – that’s one in every ten people.
It could be you, your partner, a family member or friend that finds themselves going through this life-changing experience.
How would you have conversations with your friends? Listen to music? Continue in your career? The list of concerns is endless.
In any case, providing support for those suffering from hearing loss is essential and, here in Abu Dhabi, there’s a growing community out to make society more inclusive for people with hearing problems.
A helping hand
Launched in January 2017, Hand Speakers UAE is a voluntary initiative that set out to share knowledge of Emirati sign language and help people to learn the basics of signing.
The founder, Maha Al Mehairibi, was inspired to launch the organisation after being moved by the struggles of a deaf character in the television programme, Separated at Birth.
After making the decision to learn sign language, the next challenge for Maha was finding a place where she could learn the basics and start practising herself.
“In the beginning, finding resources on Emirati sign language wasn’t easy, it wasn’t available anywhere,” reflects Maha.
“After some time I found an Instagram account run by a deaf Emirati man who used his profile to post and teach people how to do basic Emirati sign language and that’s where I started.
“I spent six months learning through the Instagram account and then I launched the initiative and started meeting with people.
“When I met deaf people, I began learning the language better and using it more efficiently and now I can actually have conversations with people using Emirati sign language.”
Through bi-weekly meet-ups and regular events, the group is spreading awareness and helping to grow a community of people who can communicate through local sign language and make a difference to society at large.
Everything is carried out by volunteers and offered free of charge with the aim of creating a more inclusive society, bringing people together through a shared language and breaking down the barriers that stop people with hearing loss from being integrated into society.
Since its inception, the group has brought a wide variety of people together, including children as young as six, to learn a new language whether they have a pressing need to learn or just want to understand more.
“Some people just want to learn a new language, others want to help make a difference to the community and some people need it to help them communicate better in their lives,” explains Maha.
“But there are lots of people who want or need to learn sign language that join us, it’s not just deaf people who take part.
“For example, we have some members who suffer from Down’s syndrome; they have difficulty speaking and communicating, so sign language is one way that they are able to communicate more effectively.
“It’s not just for people with hearing problems, there are lots of people who need this language to communicate. It’s very important to them and we’re happy to be able to help connect people and help them express themselves.”
Actions speak louder
Sign language, just like spoken dialogue, differs from country to country, with each nation having its own variation of sign language that gives them a distinctive identity.
Recognising the need for establishing an official Emirati sign language, to reflect to culture and identity of UAE citizens, the Zayed Higher Organization for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs established the Emirati Sign Language Dictionary in 2018.
The video dictionary – launched in line with the UAE Vision 2021 in a bid to maintain a cohesive society and promote inclusivity as outlined in the National Agenda – features thousands of words and phrases.
From basics like numbers and colours to directions and locations, the digital resource is an essential platform and provides vital support to people who need to learn sign language in the UAE.
But when it comes to communicating through sign language, it’s not just about knowing the right signs.
“People using sign language talk with their hands and listen with their eyes. It’s a different world and different experience,” explains Maha.
“Away from the sign language itself, deaf people have their own culture that needs to be understood. For example, how would you communicate with someone far away and get their attention using sign language?
“Or how about knowing when and how to interrupt a conversation when two people are talking without being rude? There’s etiquette to it, like all communication.
“There are techniques and specific actions and ways to communicate that differ to spoken language. It’s not as simple as just signing – you need to understand the social aspects as well and that’s something that we also like to share with our group.”
Lend a hand
With 2019 being the Year of Tolerance, there has never been a better time to look at your life and consider if you could do more to help those in need and help integrate people of determination into society.
Even if you are not affected directly by hearing loss, loss of speech or an inability to communicate, you can make a difference to other people’s lives by taking action for the better of others.
“Well, you never know what might happen to yourself, a family member or friend. You can lose your hearing or even the ability to speak properly and you find yourself feeling isolated and facing a challenge,” Maha says.
“It’s not just about helping the deaf society or yourself; you just don’t know when it could become useful in your life. You may meet a deaf person who is in distress and unless you are able to use sign language, you won’t understand what the issue is or even how you can help them.
“Just knowing the basics, you could help settle someone, make them feel understood and welcome, and it can make a huge difference.
“It’s not nice to be left out for any reason, so with the Year of Tolerance it’s important for individuals and society to take responsibility and make a difference where they can to make others feel welcome and contribute to the community.”
To learn more about Hand Speakers UAE, visit: handspeakers.com
To explore the Emirati Sign Language Dictionary, visit: bit.ly/2WbvWD5