Colombia experiences – FENASCOL workshops (English version)

[¡Versión en español muy pronto! Spanish version coming soon!]

On arriving at Bogotá (on 24 March), P and I headed for our pre-booked hostel only to find it had been given to another party. Miffed, we went to stay with her sister, M – that remained our base for the six days we were in the capital city of Colombia.

My time in Bogotá will be remembered for three things: the steam train ride to some small towns on the outskirts of the city; the experience of running at high altitude; and the two workshops held at FENASCOL (in Spanish: Federacion Naciónal de Sordos de Colombia; in English: The National Federation of Deaf Colombians), where I met several Deaf leaders of Bogotá.  I planned two trips to their organisation, the first, a brief time meeting Deaf people and getting used to language communication; the second, I would run a workshop: but really the purpose was an informal gathering to share experiences and ideas.

We got a bit lost trying to find the FENASCOL building because we were pointed in the wrong direction several times!  We gave up and took a taxi, so we were late arriving! I was shown around the building, introduced to many Deaf people and a short presentation was given, in International Signs, about FENASCOL. It is a relatively young organisation, having only been formed in1984, but its history and current status is impressive and deserves greater recognition beyond South America.  They have a clear vision (mission, vision, objectives) of what FENASCOL are all about, direct connections and links to government where they are able to influence policy, and a clear structure which is led by several Deaf leaders.  Their focus on technology is one I found particularly inspiring as they are dedicated to ensuring access via Colombian Sign Language (LSC), establishing subtitling on television and run a telephone relay service in LSC.

All of which left me with a bit of a dilemma as FENASCOL were clearly ahead in many respects. So I put together a few power-points about my work on Citizenship, going back to the time I began my PhD (2002), showed some pictures of the years of activism during the 1997-2003 period which had led to recognition of BSL. (In fact LSC was recognised by the Colombian government in 1996 or thereabouts, well before the UK.)  FENASCOL’s approach is one I would term persuasive, where they have cultural Deaf Pride occasions/parades along with attempting to convince government of the importance of recognition and access for first language LSC peoples.

I was not in a position to represent the BDA, the closest sister organisation to FENASCOL, but explained a little about post-recognition, where the UK government had provided £1.5 million towards project to increase awareness of BSL throughout society: most of which did not go directly to the BDA, let alone the FDP. I also explained the myriad of organisations that exist in the UK, and which try to unite under the umbrella of UKCOD, even though the philosophy of some of those organisations are vastly different.

What followed was a very intense and lively discussion around several issues. The first were citizenship related: much of this discussion was conducted in LSC but a key issue was whether Deaf people accept benefits and support under disability laws, or should seek to turn away from these so as to promote autonomy. As one guy pointed out, however, these were political rather than governmental issues, since it is through politics that deaf people are positioned in society.

I was asked about Deafhood, as expected, and did my very best to explain the concept, and, unsurprisingly, this led to another very lively discussion, during which I was able to take a seat in the group while Deaf people discussed the issue of Deafhood from their perspective. Much of this turned on the education of deaf children and the place of those who have been mainstreamed (e.g. can mainstreamed deaf people develop Deafhood?).

Such was the excitement and lively atmosphere generated by these workshops that the first evening went on one and a half hours overtime, while the second went on for five hours non-stop with a brief 15 minute break! Personally I was proud of myself that I participated and was able to grasp most things being communicated via International Sign – no doubt helped by many years of spending time with deaf people of different languages.

And I have not forgotten a promise made that I will try to see happen: a video link-up with FENASCOL and CDS to discuss Deafhood!

What of the steam train ride and the running?

Well, the train ride was slow and took all day, which is intentional and relaxing.  P and I were able to see a couple of little villages, soak up the atmosphere, and take in real Colombian coffee and cakes! One memorable experience was the band that played on each of the train carriages all the way through the journey, and at the places where we stopped: I include pictures here:

And the running! On arriving in Bogotá I wondered what the fuss was about being up so high, as I could breathe ok. (Bogotá is some 3600 metres closer to the stars.) Silly me. After 200 metres of a planned 20 minute run I was already struggling to breathe and my legs felt like they had just been injected with lead.  ‘It’ll pass,’ I thought to myself. Huh, it never did so during a single stride so I had to battle it through. And to think: they have a half-marathon in Bogotá!

After the run P took me on a possible ‘short cut’, which turned into a ‘very long cut’, but I can’t be too harsh: it was she who found the ideal running place. And it was, also, she who had provided the link up between me and FENASCOL to make the two workshops happen.

I was pleased to be able to do another run, this time of 40 mins. I do hope to return to Colombia in future and to see more of Bogotá. But one thing is for sure: it won’t be to run a half marathon!

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