Volunteer missions to Haiti, including Diane Paul's in 2012 help rebuild communities ravaged by the 2010 earthquake and two subsequent hurricanes.
Three years have passed since the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy in 2012 caused more deaths and destruction and further derailed rebuilding efforts. My son and I recently visited a community at the epicenter of the earthquake, Leogane, near the capital city of Port-au-Prince. We went there on a service mission with my synagogue—through the Fuller Center for Housing—to assist local families and help build houses.
I thought a lot about our professions and communication when I was in Haiti. What possible difference could we make there? Were we going to do a dichotic listening test? Try to correct an /r/ sound? Pull a child out of a classroom for speech and language intervention? What classroom?
There is a Haitian proverb, "A hungry stomach has no ears." You want children to listen and learn? Feed them first. The needs and demands seem daunting, and indeed they are. But the lessons from Haiti have application to speech-language pathology and audiology services in all communities. Even small deeds can make a big difference. And we have to do what matters most.
The trip affected us profoundly. First, just to bear witness to the debilitating conditions—makeshift tent communities; lack of housing, food and water, education, work; the widespread disease and poverty. Second, the physical labor involved in building houses, side by side with Haitian families, construction workers and other volunteers. And third, the bonds we formed learning and working together, away from daily comforts, and trying to absorb everything we were seeing and feeling. We were there for only a short time and the needs of the community were overwhelming. Was our small part really making a difference? We came to believe that the answer was yes. We were making a difference for the two families that would move into that duplex house.
Like my son and me, you probably ask whether your work with one child or one adult really can make a difference when there are millions of people with communication disorders. Approximately 35 million Americans have a hearing loss; 28 million workers in the United States experience daily voice problems; 3.5 million Americans stutter; and almost 3 million school children have some form of language-learning disability (see ASHA incidence and prevalence reports). Indeed, a vast number of children and adults in this country and worldwide can benefit and triumph from our services. Effective communication skills are critical to success in school, work and social interactions, and to general well-being and happiness. What we do as speech-language pathologists and audiologists makes a difference to each child and each adult.
And if we do what matters most, we can make an even greater difference. You know that we cannot just give a person a hearing aid and say goodbye. We cannot teach a child to put words together in a treatment room and pay no attention to what happens in the classroom or with the family. We cannot do an assessment exclusively in English when the child and family speak a different language. We all know we have to consider the whole person and focus on functional communication skills. When we work in multiple settings with a variety of conversation partners and think about what an individual needs most, we are doing what matters. This is true for the child in Haiti, the adult in a local hospital, the family with an infant with a hearing loss, or the child with multiple disabilities.
We experienced many special communication moments during our mission:
- We were singing Hebrew songs while stopped in traffic. A Haitian woman on the street gleefully started singing along.
- During a conversation with a Haitian construction worker, I was showing signs from Signed English and saying the words. My son translated the words to Spanish. The Haitian man then translated the Spanish words to Creole for his wife.
- We participated in a prayer circle each morning with Hebrew, English, French and Creole translations.
- We observed the universal language of play as the children in the community played and laughed with the young people in our group.
- We listened to sermons by a rabbi and pastor being translated in English, Hebrew and Creole.
This experience brought ASHA's vision to life for me. Effective communication is a human right that must be accessible and achievable for all. Regardless of where you live. Regardless of how much money you have. Regardless of your life circumstances. It is imperative that all stomachs have ears. Hunger blunts desire and access to learning. Effective communication skills are accessible to children only when basic needs are met.
Above all else, my son and I came to understand that we have to think beyond our local community in our personal and professional lives. We have to think about global needs and programs. Many nonprofit groups focus on issues of global concern and offer professional exchanges or volunteer opportunities. ASHA has a list of nonprofit organizations with a global focus.