Papuanska skogshallon (Rubus sp.) - Eastern Highlands Province


Learning from PNG's deaf people
about their lives and sign languages


Deaf people tend to be among the poorest in most countries.

All over the world, sign languages are, or have previously been, regarded as inferior to spoken languages, and the deaf people are viewed as mentally disabled.

In fact, their only disability is that they cannot hear, and their sign languages are just as rich, varied and complex as any spoken language.

This misunderstanding has caused deaf people to be marginalized or excluded from the society, which is absolutely unnecessary. Sign language users are not mentally disabled, they just use their hands and eyes to communicate rather than using their voices and ears.

How may this misconception have begun?

A hearing child learns a spoken language by just listening since their infancy. The hearing child, therefore, learns the spoken language from the people surrounding the child.

In constrast, a deaf child does not hear the spoken language. The parents are usually hearing and do not know any sign language. The child therefore doesn't learn any language at all and becomes frustrated to be unable to express its thoughts, feelings or wishes. The adults in turn cannot rear the child nor guide it socially or culturally.

Those deaf children without any language grow up to adults regarded as "mentally disabled people". Actually, the hearing majority being unaware about the importance of early language input, have caused the fully normal deaf child to grow up into an adult unable to interact normally in its society.

Humans need a language input immediately after birth to develop optimally, by listening or seeing even if they have not yet begun to learn to speak or sign. So what those deaf children really need, is to be exposed by natural sign languages early to acquire a mean of communication.

But in many countries, there is usually only a little, or no information about the deaf people, their sign languages and their needs so it is difficult to know where to start, and how, to give them access to the native sign languages in that country, and to increase their livelihoods in various ways.

For Papua New Guinea, there is no information about:

- the estimated number of deaf people
- how many of them use natural sign language vs. simple home signs vs. lack any language
- their localities
- the number of natural sign languages and their areas
- any deaf community, association or club

How could anyone possibly initiate projects for the deaf without access to this fundamental background information?


A deaf woman in a remote montane village. She was never exposed to any sign languge, and has therefore grown up to an adult without any language.

Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province.


A deaf class in Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province.

Deaf adults in Lae, Morobe Province.

Deaf students in Madang Province.


Therefore, I am involving deaf people in the botanical work, to learn about them and their sign languages. Simply just doing this, ie. developing relationships and interacting with them, a lot of background data can be gathered.

During my two previous visits in PNG, I came across some deaf schools in Alotau, Goroka, Lae and Madang during my travel.

Being deaf myself, deaf locals often see that I am deaf too and introduce themselves to me and often drag me around the town to introduce their deaf friends becuase it is always exciting to meet another deaf from overseas - both for me and for them.

Like many other countries, PNG is suffering by HIV/AIDS. But I learned that many of the deaf people, whom I met, did not know what it was, and had no idea it was transmitted directly between humans. Why? It seems there were no one who knew enough sign language to inform them.

There is a big need of health information in their sign languages. But which sign languages do they use? This is just one of the many reasons why it is important to gather this background information.