When Robert, who is deaf, was 15 years old he heard something he couldn’t believe: Apparently, there were “practically no” deaf in North Korea. He didn’t notice until later that this was a misunderstanding … This statement bothered him and since he wanted to find out if this was true, he traveled to North Korea as a tourist for the first time. He did not meet any deaf. So he traveled there a second time. And a third time. In the meantime, he has found them – and has been living in Pyongyang for three years. As a professional travel agent he organized group tours for the deaf and is the Pyongyang representative of the World Federation of the Deaf in North Korea. “During my travels I realized that there were not ‘no deaf in North Korea’. There was just no contact to them. I remember my fist meeting with a deaf family very well: I came to the Association of Disabled accompanied by an interpreter. The family sat there. They were very quiet. Not until I spoke to them did they start signing. Even so, we could not really communicate. I did not know international sign language well and neither did the North Koreans. So I tried miming some signs and found out their names and ages. The man and I were both 20 years old. So we started talking and I explained why I had come to North Korea.
And then he asks me: ‘Are there deaf in other parts of the world?’ That just about blew me away. This is also the reason why I am still here today.”
MANY SMALL STEPS
“In 2008 there were eight schools for the deaf. In my position as special envoi of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) I was able to visit these schools and speak to the North Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled. They wanted to build a modern inclusive educational center for the joint education of the deaf, blind and non-disabled. The necessary law was already in place and they wanted to ensure the best possible education for the children. I was asked to assist them, but honestly, I had no idea how to go about doing that and I also wanted to work in a team. To ensure the funding we had to establish an organization. The German ambassador encouraged me to accept the project and to take small steps. So the organization ‘TOGETHER’ was created. The 20 members come from Germany and Japan. The goal of our organization is to support the developing projects for the deaf and blind people in North Korea. From the beginning the idea of ‘Nothing About Us Without Us!’ was very important to us. We had many ideas for projects but the deaf were not well educated. So the first natural step was to start a school for the deaf. But who would do that with us? It is hardly possible to start a school with some poorly educated deaf. We ran the risk of the hearing doing everything. We had to go back a couple of steps. We founded an Association of the Deaf in order to learn how to develop projects with deaf adults. Usually, these were small projects, but even then we noticed that we faced barriers. The Association of the Deaf had problems because there were no sign language interpreters at the meetings with the institutions and government officials of North Korea. Good communication is key – we desperately needed good interpreters. So we founded an Association for Sign Language Interpreters. With the help of an interpreter, the deaf of North Korea could now engage in communication with the government and other institutional officials on eye level. Once communication was possible, we could start thinking of improving the educational situation. Good communication is key. First, we began with a kindergarten. We helped renovate a building and furnish it appropriately. The Center for the Deaf would also move there, which motivated a lot of the deaf to join in the work. The Center was finished by April 1, 2016.