Heard for the first time: inclusive education in Papua New Guinea

Maximillian, centre, with his two best friends after sign language class. © UNCIEF EAPRO/2016/Simon Nazer

Maximillian was around 5 years old when he lost his hearing due to a bout of malaria. Living in the remote hills of Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea, his parents and community didn’t know what to do. He could lip-read words if his family and friends spoke slowly and deliberately, but it was difficult for him to communicate beyond basic words. His education suffered badly.

“It’s not easy,” said Maximillian’s teacher, Rose Hannei. “This is a small community, a long way from the capital. Without the training and materials, it’s hard to give disabled children a good education. But this support will help a lot.”

Thanks to the efforts of Callan Services, children like 12 year old Maximillian in Bougainville are now being offered the chance at having an education just like all their friends. Every week, sign language teacher Debra Bubun from Callan Services visits schools like this in Lemanmanu Primary School with deaf or hard of hearing pupils to teach sign language.

Debra Bubun teaches sign language in schools throughout Bougainville

UNICEF works nationally in Papua New Guinea with the Government’s Inclusive Education (IE) Unit within the National Department of Education. The IE Unit oversees the implementation of Disability programs with Callan National Services, Cheshire disAbility Services, government operated Special Education Resource Center (SERC) and other service providers throughout Papua New Guinea.

Importantly, they teach the entire class. “Inclusiveness is very important, that’s why we teach children together like this,” said Debra. “I’ve been teaching sign language for 6 years. I visit schools all over the island once a week to teach sign language. You can see they really enjoy it; the response is always really good.”

Around one year ago Maximillian’s teacher contacted Callan services. She noticed that his learning was badly affected by his hearing problems and he was unable to communicate easily. For seven years Maximilian’s communication was limited to single, short words. Learning sign language has suddenly opened up a whole new world for him.

“He’s a fast learner,” said Debra just before she starts class. “He’s already putting sentences together, as are many of his classmates. It’s very social and it’s important to learn together. It’s a big change for him.”

For Maximillian, classes were once an ordeal. He had to keep his eyes on the board, hoping he would always understand because he was unable to ask questions. Thanks to the group sign language classes, he now has the confidence to ask.

Max is delighted with the classes. “I like it, I like learning sign language,” he says, surrounded by his best friends. “I’m really pleased. It’s helping a lot.”

Max demonstrates a sentence to his classmates

Even if his teacher doesn’t know sign language, his classmates are happy to help. “We are very happy,” says 12 year old Joshua, one of Maximillian’s best friends. “It helps us talk with Max, it makes it easier to communicate.”

Joshua, right, is Max’s best friend

Children with disabilities remain one of the most marginalized and excluded groups of children, experiencing widespread violations of their rights. That is why UNICEF is working closely with the Government of Papua to New Guinea to help ensure every child, like Max, has the chance to learn.

Story and photos by Simon Nazer