For two long years, Namiraa Baljinnyam of Mongolia remained hospitalized as doctors tried to restore her hearing which she had lost after contracting spinal meningitis. By 14 years old, it was evident that it would never be regained, and so her parents’ enrolled her in Number 29, the only school for the deaf in the entire country.

Growing up, Namiraa had acquired the Mongolian language like most other hearing children, but once at Number 29, she learned the country’s sign language from her deaf classmates. However, the school used the oral method, and therefore signing was prohibited in the classroom. Namiraa said she soon realized that this teaching philosophy was ineffective: “At that time I quickly understood that lip-reading was not a good teaching instruction but sign language was,” she recalled. Often her peers would approach her outside the classroom and ask her to explain the textbooks through signing because they were unable to understand the teachers.

A self-described bookworm, Namiraa was dismayed by the poor reading and writing skills of the majority of her deaf classmates. One day she happened upon a book about language acquisition that explained that if a child does not learn a language within the critical period (from birth to the age of six), they may never fully learn one. This moment was an epiphany for her as she suddenly realized why many of her classmates were struggling. “Therefore, at the age of sixteen, I set up a goal to establish a special school for deaf children, from birth to six years old, to help them to learn sign language within this critical period,” she said.

Though she was unfamiliar with the term at that time, Namiraa’s goal was the creation of an Early Intervention (EI) program. In short, EI refers to services for children who have conditions that may cause delays in different areas of development. For deaf and hard of hearing children, EI focuses on preventing delays in communication skills, promoting the overall well-being of the child, and the family’s capacity to support their child’s development.

Though each situation is unique, services may include an evaluation of the child’s needs, home visits from EI professionals, sign language instruction for family members, audiology and speech-language services, specialized instruction to support the communication and overall development of the child, assistive technology devices and services, and other services related to the needs of the child and the family.

Following high school, Namiraa wanted to pursue a deaf education degree but when she learned that not a single university in Mongolia offered this she opted to study linguistics instead. She graduated from the National University of Mongolia with a bachelor’s degree in 2005 and applied to teach at the deaf school. Ironically, she said Number 29 refused to hire her on account of her being deaf. Not letting this discourage her, she enrolled in the Mongolian State University of Education and graduated with a master’s degree in educational studies in 2007. “Studying together with hearing people demanded a lot of patience, hard work, and enthusiasm in order to achieve my goals because Mongolian universities do not have sign language interpreters,” remembered Namiraa.

The barriers she faced only served to fuel her desire to improve education for the deaf in her country. After graduation, she said she founded the Mongolian Association of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth and Children (MADYC), a non-governmental organization (NGO). In her own words, the mission of this NGO “is to support equal and full access to education, communication, sign language, information, and human rights for all deaf and hard of hearing youths and children in Mongolia.”

Namiraa knew that a specialized degree would be greatly beneficial in her quest to change deaf education in Mongolia. She also knew about Gallaudet University and the expertise it offers in this field, but at that time she did not have the resources to attend. This changed in 2009 when she was awarded the World Deaf Leadership Scholarship from the Nippon Foundation.

With the foundation’s support, Namiraa put her MADYC project on hold and relocated to the United States where she studied at Gallaudet’s English Language Institute (ELI) for a year before enrolling as a graduate student. In 2013 she graduated with a master’s degree in deaf education and a graduate certificate from the Deaf and hard of hearing Infants, Toddlers and their Families: Collaboration and Leadership (ITF) Program.

The Gallaudet ITF Program is designed to educate professionals from a wide range of disciplines and supply them with the knowledge and skillset to work with families who have very young deaf and hard of hearing children. The goal is to provide an overview of professional and ethical practices, communication and languages, families, and developmental assessment and programming. Dr. Marilyn Sass-Lehrer, co-director of the ITF Program, instructed Namiraa and was impressed. “She clearly learned so much here. She didn’t have deaf role models in her country and she was in awe of the talented deaf scholars and leaders she met at Gallaudet.” Dr. Beth Benedict, who shares the co-director title with Dr. Sass-Lehrer, was also quick to praise Namiraa: “[She] overcame enormous odds to come to Gallaudet. She is one of the most determined and hardworking students we have met. She sets high goals for herself and she always achieves them!”

Now possessing a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a graduate certificate, Namiraa admits that she’s relatively well-known in Mongolia because it is believed that she is the only EI and deaf education professional in the entire country. As such, several of her articles on these topics have been published by various newspapers and magazines, and she is frequently invited to give presentations. Many times she has lectured at disability rights events, twice she appeared on a national television channel, and she was even invited to give a presentation at the TEDxUlaanbaatarWomen event. “I always talk about the urgent need to prepare professionals for special education, deaf education, and EI. EI service is not just for the deaf but for children with all kinds of disabilities. And the need to change the negative attitudes of hearing people towards disabled people, especially towards deaf people.”

In September, Namiraa had a monumental breakthrough in her advocacy work when the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) agreed to partner with her organization, MADYC, and the Mongolian Association of Sign Language Interpreters (MASLI). This partnership was accompanied by a USAID grant in the amount of $294,114. Among other things, this funding subsidizes the establishment of an EI program and an elementary school program, sign language instruction, public training on deaf education, and visual aid productions. According to a press release from the United States Embassy, Judith Heumann, U.S. Department of State’s Special Adviser for Disability Rights, announced the partnership in a public event. She stated, “The project will focus on early identification and intervention services for Mongolian deaf children and youth, and improve the quality of life for the deaf community.”

In short, Namiraa’s dream, which she carried with her for eighteen years, would finally become a reality. Looking back, she said, “I talked about the special school to everyone but many of them would laugh at me and some of them would widen their eyes and ask, ‘Are you crazy’?” Fortunately, she never let the criticism discourage her and on October 6, 2014, the EI program officially launched. Namiraa identifies this as both her biggest accomplishment to date, and also the fulfillment of her promise to the Nippon Foundation and to the Gallaudet University ITF Program.

Her EI classroom is modeled after the Parent-Infant Program (PIP) of Kendall Demonstration Elementary School (KDES) where she interned for two years. Deaf and hard of hearing students from birth until age three are taught in a bilingual/bicultural environment with a creative curriculum that is based on the visual environment, family involvement, and everyday routines. Though this EI classroom has only been open for a month, improvements can already be seen in the children’s communication and sign language skills. Namiraa is thrilled with the progress. “They are so happy in the classroom and like to learn sign language,” she said. “My happiness is to see our students’ improved communication skills.”

Naturally she is delighted to finally have established an EI program but true to her spirit, she has much loftier goals for deaf education in Mongolia. In addition to the EI program now underway in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, Namiraa envisions a future with an EI program in every single one of the country’s 21 provinces. Through the grant, one bilingual/bicultural class has been introduced at Number 29, but Namiraa’s aim is for the entire school to adopt this approach. On the collegiate level, she hopes to see not only the introduction of deaf education programs but the emergence of Mongolian Sign Language linguistics. To some, these goals may seem unattainable but Namiraa and her EI program are proof that with ambition, perseverance, and the right support, anything is possible.

By Nathan Ramsier; photos courtesy of Namiraa Baljinnyam

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