By Elizabeth Grover, teacher of the deaf and a qualified Auslan (Australian Sign Language) Interpreter. Elizabeth has extensive experience working with deaf children from the age of three years up to young deaf adults, including those with additional disabilities. She has completed two assignments with the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program at the Wangsel Institute (previously the Deaf Education Unit) in Bhutan in 2013-14 and 2015. During her first assignment she wrote and published a teaching manual and since then has shared her experiences at Teacher of the Deaf workshops and conferences in Melbourne and New Zealand.
“The minute I stepped off the plane in Paro, an airport in the middle of a steep mountain range with prayer flags lining the single runway, I felt that sense of coming home.”
For Melbourne teacher Elizabeth Grover, who has volunteered twice through the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, a return to Bhutan’s only school for the deaf is something she had dreamt of since finishing her last assignment.
“When I left Bhutan at the end of 2015, I had written, ‘I will always treasure my time at the school, the wonderful staff and students I worked with, and being part of the development of deaf education. I am blessed to have come to Bhutan twice and hope that one day I can return to feel the country’s spirit once again.’ Little did I realise that this dream would come true.”
Elizabeth was one of two winners of the Returned Australian Volunteers Network (RAVN) Host Organisation Revisited Prize at the RAVN Conference in December 2016. She won a trip back to Bhutan to reconnect with colleagues and reflect on the impact of her volunteer assignment, along with a $5,000 grant for her host organisation, Wangsel Institute.
“When I arrived at Wangsel Institute, I’m not sure who was more excited – the students and staff who ran to greet me, or myself. They wanted to know how long I would be staying. I was surprised that I could quickly retrieve my skills in Bhutanese Sign Language – which is totally different from Australian Sign Language – and glad I did revision before I left.”
Wangsel Institute staff and Elizabeth agreed to use the grant to purchase specialised smoke detectors with flashing lights, bed shakers designed for deaf people, and sewing machines and an overlocker for the Institute’s tailoring program.
“Staff and students were in awe and mystified by the smoke detector equipment as it was something they had never seen before. It was equipment that was very much needed, as building fires are common in Bhutan and the safety of the deaf students in the boarding houses was always a concern for the Principal and staff.”
The equipment was installed over several days with the Principal, Dechen Tshering, and the school handyman showing ingenuity by making shelves for the devices. Elizabeth focused on educating the staff and students in how to use the new equipment. The students did role plays about what they would do if the alarms were activated and said the bed shaker “feels like an earthquake”.
On Elizabeth’s second day at the school, the foot pedal sewing machines arrived. The senior students literally ran to the truck to offload the boxes, and assembled them over the next two days.
“The delight on the faces of the tailoring teacher and students was priceless. Tailoring is a typical Bhutanese trade that allows deaf students to gain employment alongside their hearing peers and to contribute to society in a meaningful way.”
In addition to seeing how the much-needed grant would benefit the school, Elizabeth was able to see the progress that had been made in the school since her last volunteer assignment. Student numbers had increased, a new boarding hostel had been completed, and more teachers were employed.
“Some teachers continue to use strategies they learnt when I was there, and they kept talking about their increased understanding of students with additional disabilities. I was very happy to see a well-worn copy of a teaching manual I wrote during my first assignment amongst a pile of books on the staffroom table.”
At a school assembly on her final day, Elizabeth was presented with a handmade laptop bag in bright traditional design sewn by one of the students, with the entire school signing ‘thank you’ and the cultural deaf ‘clapping’ of hands waving in the air.
“It was indeed a special moment…returning to my Host Organisation has been so much more than I could have ever imagined. Since returning home I have been asked, ‘Will you return?’ and my answer is, ‘Of course!’ Bhutan and the deaf students at Wangsel Institute will never be far from my mind.”
In April 2017, Elizabeth Grover returned to the Wangsel Institute – Bhutan’s only school for the deaf – where she had previously completed two volunteer assignments through the AVID program. Elizabeth was one of two winners of the RAVN Host Organisation Revisited Prize at the RAVN Conference in December 2016. She won a trip back to Bhutan to reconnect with colleagues and reflect on the impact of her volunteer assignment, along with a $5,000 grant for the organisation. The second winner, Brad Timms, will return to Eco Children in South Africa this month.