Saturday morning in Sao Lazaro Street. There is a lot of activity in front of the house of the Taizé brothers. Nearly everybody is there. Mr. Mario with his guitar, Vital and his youngest daughter, Noélia and her children, Fagner, Ana Lucia… Deaf people, blind people, people who can see and hear, adults and young people, are meeting once again to finalise the schedule of their activities. All of them belong to the “Seeing and talking hands club”. The name may seem a bit long, but everyone remembers it and likes to repeat it. Hands that speak: the sign language of the deaf. Hands that talk: the Braille of the blind. Its aim is quite simple: to enable deaf and blind people in Alagoinhas to live fully, to support their families, defend their rights, and to reinforce ties between the deaf and those who hear, and between the blind and those who see.
The club began in 1995 with around twelve young people who decided to learn the sign language. A large number of deaf people were living in the neighbourhood, with nothing in particular being organised to care for them. Alagoinhas, a small town in the State of Bahia, 150 km from Salvador, is one of those towns that people pass through; in recent years it is peasants from the North East hoping to leave behind their poverty and find prosperity in the large cities of the South. For over twenty years, Sao Lazaro Street, in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods of the town, has been home to a small fraternity of Taizé brothers. In 1994, they realised there were over 25 deaf people living in the neighbourhood and they were becoming more and more marginalised. No one in the town knew the sign language. A teacher from Salvador enabled some of the young people to learn the rudiments. Once they had got started, the young people decided to continue learning. The “talking hands club” was set up, to welcome both the deaf and people who can hear. The first classes for the deaf were started. Other activities followed: capoiera (a martial art and dance form), theatre, dance, and sign language courses enabling the deaf to take part in the same social and cultural activities as those who can hear.
Classes for young deaf people were soon begun in the neighbourhood school for poor children. In 2001, a class for the blind was started. The classes for the deaf and the blind grew rapidly. Today, in addition to the 150 children from the neighbourhood, the school caters for 80 deaf students from 2 to 30 years old, 30 blind students from 5 to 75 years old, and 4 students who are both deaf and blind. The mixing together of the students gives the school a surprising character, through the richness of what is shared and the peace that sometimes comes from these children who are accustomed to living in situations marked by extreme violence.
The arrival of the blind people in the club enabled it to grow and consolidate. Today it brings together 25 people, and meets every week. Its actions are visible on a daily basis: courses in Braille and sign language, detection of sensory handicaps, job hunting for the deaf and the blind in local firms, translating into sign language…
Occasionally there are media events that make it possible to make the club more dynamic and to show practically what it is doing. The “Bahia Tandem Tour” is certainly the most symbolic of all of them. The idea is quite simple: to enable deaf and blind people to go from Alagoinhas to Salvador by tandem. In Europe, several initiatives of this kind exist for the blind who cover long distances on several tandems, with a sighted person in front and a blind person behind. The originality here comes from the fact that the sighted person is deaf! It is difficult to imagine how communication between the two is possible, but it worked perfectly. In September 2004, 6 tandems went to Salvador, pausing each day in a stopover town, thus showing that handicapped people have their full place in present day society and that they play a vital role.
The club receives more and more requests from institutions in neighbouring towns and from throughout the State of Bahia to give its support to the work being done with deaf and blind people there. To date, the ECAI School (Escola Comunitaria de Atendimento Integral: community school of comprehensive insertion) is the only experience of its type in the State of Bahia, a state that is as big as France.
Edwige, October 2004