Listening to their needs

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For almost 40 years, Neville Muir has been quietly working to assist thousands of deaf children in developing countries to gain an education and empower them to live productive and fulfilling lives, ALANA MITCHELSON reports.

Beaconsfield’s Neville Muir has come to learn that there is a widespread lack of understanding about deafness in developing countries.

His long-term project Deaf Action has branched out to involve education and income-generating projects for deaf youth across the world including in Korea, Taiwan, Japan, China, Myanmar, the Philippines and in Africa.

His aim has been to provide opportunities and break the cycle of poverty and discrimination.

He has found the silence and lack of awareness deafening.

“There have been so many remote areas that we visit where parents didn’t even know there was such a thing as another deaf child,” Neville said.

“You see lots of sad cases of kids being misunderstood and just becoming kitchen slaves.

“There are many parents who don’t know how to communicate with their own kids because they’ve never learned sign language.

“It means that they often give up on trying to communicate with their families.

“There is a complete ignorance of deafness.”

One young boy, Gabriel, who is now in the care of Deaf Action, is both deaf and blind.

He was dumped by his parents as a baby and neglected by grandparents to the point where his lack of movement throughout his developmental years has permanently crippled him.

The children who have been supported by Deaf Action are living proof that deaf people can do almost anything when given the opportunity.

Neville’s involvement in the deaf sphere began when he took part in a school holiday church club in Echuca during 1965 where he met a deaf boy.

“This boy became my inspiration for working with deaf children,” Neville said.

“I got hooked and deafness became a real fascination.

“I became involved with different aspects of the deaf world and trained to become a teacher for the deaf.

“There tends to be a stigma that deaf people are stupid but most deaf people are very intelligent.”

Having worked at a university in Japan, Neville used his overseas connections to launch his own churches for the deaf in Inchon, Korea, beginning with just four children in 1979.

Deaf Action has since expanded to education and employment transition programs and assists deaf children in 21 countries, some from kindergarten through to college.

It funds four schools in the Philippines, Myanmar and Kenya, and supports up to 18 schools worldwide.

His work in the Philippines began shortly after one of his friends started a school for the deaf in their own home.

Most students live in the dormitory because transport is difficult and many children are isolated on nearby islands.

Neville believes there is a strong need for support.

“We have about three employees and five regular volunteers,” Neville said.

“There is no profit for us. We scrape through each month.”

Tucked away in an office backing on to Main Street, Pakenham, for the past 10 years, Neville’s latest project has involved fundraising to send a small group of volunteers to rebuild the kitchens and dining room facilities at two Filipino schools in Ligao and Davao.

“Deaf Action has established about 35 micro businesses in the Philippines for deaf children,” he said.

“In Ligao we have a rice mill project as part of our employment transition program. We have two hectares of rice fields and land to grow vegetables.

“Local farmers come to the school to get their rice milled. So it gives the older children the opportunity to generate their own income.”

Meanwhile in Davao, many of the women have been trained in massage.

Deaf children have also been working together in sewing, woodwork, threading pearl jewellery pieces, making slippers, making peanut butter, selling candied nuts and mobile phone holders, which also empowers them to make an income.

Neville’s next goal for Deaf Action is to open a massage parlour and outlet store in Davao, and to have a regular stall at the town market in Ligao to sell the rice and other goods produced.

Only about five per cent of deaf people in developing countries go to primary school and even less can progress to high school.

“Sometimes we see adults come in to the school because they are desperate to learn and they may never have been able to get a proper education,” he said.

“Many deaf people do not even know sign language, especially if they live in remote areas.

“We don’t turn anyone away.”

The World Health Organisation has estimated that about 80 per cent of the world’s deaf population of 72 million live in developing countries.

For more information, visit http://www.deafaction.org.au.

Donations to support Deaf Action’s work can be made to bank account BSB 633-000, account number 145 834 370.

Originally published at Pakenham Gazette.

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About Alana Mitchelson

Alana Mitchelson is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @AlanaMitchelson.

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