Living Mission —
New challenges for
the deaf in Cambodia

Father Charles Dittmeier

At the end of June, I had to lay off 11 staff of the Deaf Development Programme (DDP) because of cuts in funding. At a farewell gathering for those leaving, I found myself sitting next to Sopheap.

When I arrived in Cambodia in 2000, she was an 11-year-old deaf orphan with Mother Teresa’s sisters. DDP provided education and job training and, eventually, she became our field worker. And now I was terminating her.

Being with Sopheap caused me to reflect that I have had the opportunity to accompany three generations of deaf young people in Kentucky, Hong Kong and Cambodia. I was with them in their teenage years and young adulthood, and now they are grown up and middle-aged, and even grandparents.

I started working with deaf people when I was in the seminary. After ordination, we had a Catholic deaf program in Louisville, and once a month I went to the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville. I got to know the teenagers there, along with the ones in Louisville, and we had religious education, Masses in sign language and great summer camps at Herrington Lake. Now those former students are contacting me on Facebook 40 years later.

I had a dream when I was a kid that I was going to live and work in a foreign country, so when I was invited to work at a school for the deaf in Bangalore, India, I jumped at the chance. I was only there two years but I fell in love with Asia and that led to my becoming a Maryknoll associate priest.

Maryknoll didn’t minister in India and I was assigned to Hong Kong. I worked in a Catholic deaf school there when the first group of students was becoming teenagers.  They attended Sunday Mass with a teacher who wrote notes about what the priest was saying and passed them down the line of students in a pew. Not a good way to experience Mass!

Eventually, as the school and the teachers and students got used to me, I asked if they would like to have Mass in Hong Kong Sign Language. The students used sign language among themselves although the school didn’t allow signing, and they were happy to have a signed Mass. Our new Catholic deaf community began to grow and after a few years, we even got our own church, an old renovated refugee center. Those 13 years were the best period of my life as I accompanied a wonderful group of young deaf people growing up, marrying and forming a loving community.

I was spiritual director for a Mexican seminarian and eventually he replaced me in deaf ministry in Hong Kong, and I moved to Cambodia. Hong Kong had everything; Cambodia had nothing: no sign language, no deaf schools, no organizations serving the deaf. The Deaf Development Programme was started in 1997 and is still the only organization offering services to the deaf community. It has five projects: basic education, job training, sign language interpreting, community development and social services.

Deaf work in Cambodia has been very slow. Less than 5 percent of the deaf population has been found. Deafness is greatly misunderstood. There is prejudice and discrimination. There is almost no help from the government, and funding has become almost impossible, especially now because of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine.

But again, I have been blessed with 20+ years in Cambodia and have seen another generation of young deaf people growing up and being prepared for their ongoing struggle to find a place in their own society.

Father Charles Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at parish-without-borders.org.

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New challenges for
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