When I first floated the idea for this event to a friend of mine, he told me it sounded like a logistical nightmare: an exchange by DVC involving two separate time zones and four different languages, three of which I couldn’t understand. From a public diplomacy and human rights standpoint, however, it seemed like the right thing to do. Part of why I feel so strongly about disability rights is that it’s a truly cross-cutting issue, touching on gender equality, employment, education, civic participation – the list goes on. A sign language poetry exchange had the added elements of promoting both the arts and cross-cultural connections. So I contacted Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and we got started.
An international poetry exchange was a first for either side; in fact, in Pakistan, no one in the deaf community could remember ever having done a sign language poetry event of any sort. The two sides formed a language communication chain of Urdu Sign Language to voiced Urdu to voiced English to American Sign Language – and then the reverse. Poems went back and forth in a kind of linguistic bucket brigade. Watching the Pakistani participants’ reactions was something beyond wonderful. The vast majority of the people in Pakistan’s deaf community have had little to no access to education and are highly marginalized. The poets were clearly ecstatic to be invited to the U.S. Consulate, to interact directly with deaf Americans, to have media present to watch them perform poetry and stories of their own making. When a Pakistani exchange student at Gallaudet got on stage to sign, two of the Lahore participants leaped out of their seats. He turned out to be a friend of theirs, and the DVC was the first time they were able to communicate with each other since he’d gone to study in America. That unplanned moment alone was worth all the logistical hassles.
To see Gallaudet’s video of the event, please click here. And if you feel moved to applaud the performers, raise your arms and shake your hands. That sign is the same in both Urdu Sign Language and American Sign Language.