Colombia 1997

Hi there readers!

I am copying my report from the VI (that’s sixth) Helen Keller World Conference that I attended in September of 1997. Enjoy reading this retrospective report!


I am very happy to make this report. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my financial backers, without their generous assistance, I would not have had the chance to attend the conference. I would also like to thank my interpreter: Leona Parr-Hamel. Who tirelessly provided top interpreter action to me. Thank you all! (Leona, sadly passed away about a decade ago, she was very support of DeafBlind, we shared many adventures! This is for you Leona!)

I had a wonderful time in Colombia, here are some of the many highlights.

Colombia is a beautiful country that has an interesting perspective. They have a general “no problem” attitude, and all problems would solve themselves. They wanted to please and help everyone, they were seen smiling and curious. (Good lord! Did I write this blather? I am quite speechless! Who is “they” I refer to? For the record, I am referring to the people of Colombia!) But all that changed when they started driving. Colombians drive fast, drive recklessly, drive on opposite sides of the road, drive without stopping (on the bus journey from Bogotá to Paipa, where the conference was held, the bus stopped fully only four or five times! And that was a 3 hour drive!), red lights are seen as Christmas decorations; drivers whizz by them without stopping! And if you are a slow car, or cart, you’ll be passed, even if it means the passer goes into the oncoming lane! Phew!

(I want to add here; That was 1997, I heard that the Colombia government has improved transportation rules since. And, I loved this fast, crazy driving, Leona, often hid her face behind her hands! I have a few stories that I might share, especially of this driving! Stay tuned!)

Paipa is a small town that has all the normal amenities, and a few more, two big hotels on the outskirts. They conference was held in one of these hotels, a sprawling ranch-style hotel with a natural hot spring heating the pool. There was also a game room, a sauna, a tore, and a food service that was WOW! There was a staff of about 20 people serving and clearing away the food. It was a well-oiled machine. The food itself was an adventure every time! Good cooking! (It is undoubtedly, still amazing service and food!)

During the week i met different people, and I learned a bit of their languages as well. I met a broad range of people, young and old, men and women, i met some people i have only heard (read?) about, and some I have never heard about (well, d’oh!). I chatted with Stig Ohlson from Sweden (the the President of the World Federation of the Deafblind – WFDb), Daniel Alvarez from Spain (then the Vice-President of WFDb), Rod MacDonald (former President of American Association of the Deaf-Blind), and many other Deaf-Blind notables.

I also chatted with many people from other countries. I chatted with a man from Japan, I talked to many Swedes, met a fellow from East Africa, talked with a mom and her Deaf-Blind son from Chile, met and chatted with a Russian, a Mexican, an Australian, a man from Czech Republic, a duo from Belgium, an Italian, some English folks, and many people from Latin America including: Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and not forgetting the many beautiful, friendly people from Colombia! Such a wide range of people, you might think that we can communication problems. But that was not the case.

The communication was easy, at times! Some people had a basic understanding of ASL finger spelling, so we used that to chat with. Others could understand the ASL signs, so we used those. Still others, who did not use sign language or finger spelling, could use English print on palm, so we used that. Print on palm is just that: using your finger as a “pen” to print, or write, what you want to say. When I said “we used that,” I meant Leona used it, she was much more adept to understanding this communication mode. I was never able to understand the words written on my palm!

I also had some basic understanding of some signs of different languages. For example: I can communicate using Colombian finger spelling, a system that is based on ASL, but with several different letters. Colombia fingerspelling also has, I don’t know if it still using it now, a “Space Sign” to designate the end of a word being spelled. This made it easier for me to understand. I also picked up some signs and used them when communicating with those people who used them. For example: I talked to a lady from Sweden, who showed me the signs for computer and internet, then used those signs, with ASL, when I talked to her later. This helped communication go smoother!

I had few problems understanding people when the switched to their sign language. I just had to read their body language and emotions, adding that to their sign language, I could generally understand what they were talking about.

Another form of communication that I had an opportunity to use was Tadoma; this is a method where one places their fingers over vocal cords, while the thumb rests on the mouth of the person speaking. This way the person can understand speech by feeling the vocal cords and mouth. Due to today’s COVID-19 conditions, it is most likely passé!

The workshops offered were very informative. J listened to many about the status of Deaf-Blind people in different world regions. In Africa, Latin America and Asia, there is a common theme: efforts are bing made to search out, find and teach Deaf-Blind children, youth adults and elders. For example: in Africa, Deaf-Blind children were ignored, not taught in schools, or not even considered educable. However, individuals, agencies and Deaf-Blind advocates have been finding and educating deaf-blind children, plus medical attention, offering them skills to become independent citizens! The fellow I chatted with from East Africa, David is his name, was, in his childhood, ignored and left out, not schooled. But the agency that found him, I can’t recall the name of the agency, taught him to read, write, communicate, and he is became a success story! I don’t know if he is still alive, he is the same age as me…

The workshop I hosted was well attended. People cam and were very interested to learn how Canadian Deaf-Blind folks use intervenors in their daily lives. Which is kinda funny… when I attended this conference, I had not used an intervenor, but interpreters who were understanding to vision loss. However, it wasn’t until 2008, when I moved to Toronto, when I really started to use intervenors.

There were two fundamental decisions that took place at the conference which will affect Deaf-Blind persons around the world. The first was the official forming of the World Federation of the Deafblind (spelled their way). Rod MacDonald put this idea together and asked the delegates to vote if they wanted to set it up. Forty-four people voted to accept the idea! This great news heralded in more visibility for Deaf-Blind persons, allowing more education and learning opportunities. WFDb still exists today!

I believe I was nominated to the board of WFDb, as North America Representative. Funny that I did not mention this in my report! I do recall going to the 2001 conference and the board had a big long board meeting, in which Leona was working nonstop, and so was a few other interpreters, until I said STOP! The oral deaf-blind people were blah blah blah blah-ing talking with no regard to the interpreters who were working solo! It was unfair!

The other announcement was the resolution to the United Nations. This is the 1997 resolution that pushes the UN to contact countries and governments around the world to accept and support Deaf-Blind individuals. As this was in 1997, a lot has changed since. I am not in the mood to research about this United Nations resolution and if it is the same as the Convention of Rights for People with a Disability. I not paid enough! Winks!

That is all…

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Thank you for reading!

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