By Nawara Fattahova
Sign language is different in different countries, and is not a universal language as most people believe. Kuwait Times interviewed two Kuwaiti sign language trainers to learn more – Jaber Al-Kandari, Chief Operating Officer at DIFA Kuwait, sign language expert and trainer; and Bader Al-Doukhi, a former educator of the deaf and Kuwaiti Sign Language interpreter and trainer. Doukhi has published books about Kuwaiti Sign Language and education of the deaf. Some excerpts:
Kuwait Times: Why and how did you learn sign language?
Jaber Al-Kandari: I learned sign language in school and from deaf friends because I have to communicate. I was born deaf.
Bader Al-Doukhi: I learned sign language because I was planning to teach at a deaf school after graduating from university. I learned American Sign Language at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. I learned Kuwaiti Sign Language after I got a job at Al-Amal school for the deaf and from my students.
KT: What are the differences between the Arabic and Kuwaiti sign languages?
Doukhi: There is no such thing called Arabic Sign Language; every Arab country has its own language according to the name of the country. There are Unified Arabic Signs, which is a collective of signs gathered from Arab countries. If want to talk about the difference between UAS and KSL, there is a big difference – one is a language with all the characteristics of a language such as grammar, origin, use among users and structure. Unified Arabic Signs do not have these characteristics.
KT: What is the role/importance of Kuwaiti Sign Language vs Arabic, American, Indian, Asian or European sign languages?
Kandari: Kuwaiti Sign Language is an important part of the national pride of Kuwaitis and is a good expression of who we are. The other sign languages are good for other countries and for speaking to their deaf populations.
Doukhi: KSL is important for deaf people of Kuwait; it’s their mother language and its role is to communicate with each other socially and academically. Other sign languages can be learned as a second or third language.
KT: How many Kuwaiti sign language speakers are in Kuwait?
Kandari: 7,000 persons.
KT: How long did it take you to learn sign language?
Kandari: It was my first language, so I learned it in a few years.
Doukhi: Learning any language never ends – I have been with the deaf for over 30 years and am still learning. But to become competent and skilled in sign language, I would say it takes 3-5 years of constant practise.
KT: What are the challenges to learning sign language, and how did you overcome these challenges?
Kandari: The biggest challenge is teaching others to learn sign language and to have people who don’t know how to speak it to learn it.
Doukhi: Since I had learned American Sign Language, it helped me tremendously in learning Kuwaiti Sign Language. The challenge I faced at that time was a lack of resources and low academic level and Arabic vocabulary of deaf individuals. Also, there’s a difference in sign language between generations of deaf people, so Kuwaiti Sign Language constantly changes.
KT: When you travel, which sign language do you use? Do you use other sign languages besides Kuwaiti Sign Language in Kuwait or the region? Are there sign languages in the Qatari, Saudi, GCC or other dialects?
Kandari: When I travel outside the Gulf, I use American Sign Language because many people speak it. In the region I use Arabic Sign Language, and all local Gulf dialects.
Doukhi: When I travel to Gulf countries, I use Kuwaiti Sign Language, because all GCC countries are very close to each other with little difference between them. Also, most of the older generation of deaf individuals in these countries studied in Kuwait before 1990. When it comes to other Arab nations or countries around the world, I use Kuwaiti Sign Language with what we call ‘contact signs’. Sign languages are not dialects, nor are they derived from any main spoken language, whether it’s Arabic, English or others. Sign Languages are languages in their own right.
KT: Does your family speak the same sign language as well, and how was their experience learning it?
Kandari: My family does not sign.
Doukhi: My family does not use sign language, but my wife is hard of hearing and uses sign language when she has to, in certain situations. Her experience is the same as any deaf person. The language identifies her as a deaf person and she is proud of who she is and takes pride in her language. She communicates with her friends using Kuwaiti Sign Language.
KT: What would you tell the parents of a deaf child in Kuwait?
Kandari: I would tell the parents of a deaf child in Kuwait to teach them to sign and learn sign language as quickly as possible, especially Kuwaiti Sign Language, so they are proud of who they are.
Doukhi: Parents of a deaf child need to learn their son’s or daughter’s language in order to communicate with them. It is very important to learn the language and teach them everything instead of having a stranger teach their child the facts of life. Also, the child would feel happy and proud of their parents.
KT: As a deaf person living in Kuwait, what are the challenges you face and what do you think are some changes that could/should be made to improve the lives of deaf people living here?
Kandari: Kuwait needs to provide 24/7/365 communication access to the deaf through Malka Communications, an American company. They are very talented and want to provide better training to interpreters in Kuwait and provide more interpreters, so that we can always have them available. They also want literacy and a great education for the deaf, which they do not always have here in Kuwait.
Doukhi: The biggest challenge facing a deaf person is communication. A lack of understanding of sign language by hearing people and a lack of understanding of Arabic by deaf people makes communication very hard. Deaf people struggle in order to express their needs, wants and demands. They are the most ignored special needs people in Kuwait. The small number of interpreters makes it hard to serve all deaf people in Kuwait. The other issue is education – deaf education is way behind in terms of sign language. Teachers of the deaf lack competency in sign language, which in turn affects their education. A majority of deaf individuals are not competent readers due to the fact that teachers lack competency in sign language.