Gallaudet University Museum puts a Deaf Slant on the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary

A FEW MONTHS AGO, no one knew that a simple exhibition planned by Gallaudet University in Washington D.C.  to mark the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps and share the fact that deaf people have served as Peace Corps Volunteers would expand into a far more complex story. Norma Morán (Kenya 2000–03), senior adviser to the project explains:

“We started out trying to reach as many deaf and hard of hearing people as possible who have served in the Peace Corps. We hoped that five or ten would respond with photos or objects, and never dreamed that a new archival collection of over 450 photographs would be built within a few months.”

PCV Allen Neece with 13 yr old boy just learning sign language — Guyana

PCV Allen Neece with 13 yr old boy just learning sign language — Guyana

Morán is one of 59 known deaf Volunteers who have served with the Peace Corps since its founding. From that group, 36 Volunteers contributed photos, objects and stories. As the exhibition expanded, Gallaudet’s University Museum quickly moved it to a larger space.

MOST DEAF VOLUNTEERS WORK in educational programs for deaf children, and sometimes are involved with the very first school for deaf students in a host country. Like all Volunteers, deaf PCVs shared the experience of being resourceful and making the best of challenging situations. They came to host countries as an embodied example of an educated deaf adult, and often introduced the idea that deaf children could learn.

While considered an outsider from a local or regional perspective, deaf Volunteers often find a common bond with deaf students and close friends from within local deaf communities.  Their skill at cross-cultural communication and comfort with people staring at them signing, along with that instant connection with fellow deaf people, offered a comfort factor that, perhaps, hearing Volunteers did not share.

PCV Pauline Spanbauer teaching sign language — Philippines 1976

PCV Pauline Spanbauer teaching sign language — Philippines 1976

THERE WILL BE opening reception for the show that on October 25 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Immediately following the reception there will be a “living exhibit” performance where six deaf Volunteers will share stories in a theatrical setting.

Earlier that day a student from Gallaudet’s International Development program will moderate a panel discussion that will include both deaf and hearing RPCVs, offer a chance to take a look at ways deaf and hearing experiences align or diverge, and examine best practices in international development work.

Please join the Gaullaudet community on campus for this celebration, and very first gathering of deaf people who served the Peace Corps. All events are open to the public and accessible in spoken English and American Sign Language.

The Schedule:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

12:30 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Panel Discussion
I. King Jordan Student Academic Center
“G” Area.

2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Gallaudet University Museum Exhibition Opening
Making a Difference: Deaf Peace Corps Volunteers
I. King Jordan Student Academic Center
Weyerhaeuser Family Gallery and Exhibition Hall.

4:15 p.m. — 5:15  p.m. Gallaudet University Museum Living Exhibition
Performance of Peace Corps Journeys
Eastman Studio, (Black Box) Theater, Elstad Auditorium.

Gallaudet University
800 Florida Avenue NE
Washington, DC


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  • John, great story …. I had a deaf student — he was, I wasn’t — when I taught 6th grade in Liberia ….. had smallpox scabs picked off his ear drums by a country doctor hears before …. he got as far as the 6th grade because he had learned to read lips on his own and was extremely smart ….. however the 6th grade was to be a game ender as it was the first of three National Exam years (6th, 9th, 12th) … had to pass the National Exam to proceed further ….. I worked with him after school nearly everyday …… fairy tale ending ….. I continued with his class for their 7th and 8th grade and he went on to pass each of the subsequent National Exams (somehow, without me!!!) …… he eventually got to the USA and I think I recall that he was enrolled for some time at Gallaudet University …. have often wondered what happened to him.

  • This is what makes Peace Corps so very special, thanks for sharing this with us John! As a Disaster Relief Volunteer in Colombia, I will translate your story to share with the Hearing Impaired and Deaf students here in northern Colombia…I wish the students and staff at Gallaudet the best because they are the best! Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Colombia

  • Yea! One of them is my sister Pauline Spanbauer. I am so proud of her for pioneering deaf education in the Philippines, and many who were her students can trace her legacy bringing in several successful generations of educated deaf people, and…making the world a better place for everyone.

  • I am Pauline Spanbauer’s sister. She has never forgotten her first hands on expierences while she was teaching in the Phillipines.

    To this day, she still cooks their food, kept her friends in contact, and happily eats rice everyday.

    Pauline had a wonderful expierences working, teachiing, and learned how to use their sign language for the deaf. She would sit on the floor to read stories to them. Her studentss loved her. She embraced their culture with their below socio-economic level, where her students were very happy what they had and felt so blessed to have her as their teacher.

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