Photograph of Curator Jean Bergey

This exhibition seeks to examine ways Peace Corps service of deaf Volunteers aligns with and diverges from the experience of hearing Volunteers. Comments from deaf returned Peace Corps Volunteers reveal the challenging circumstances and resourceful solutions that most, if not all, Volunteers encounter.

They also suggest that skills gained from a lifetime of being deaf such as comfort with being seen as an outsider and acceptance of the spectacle of signing become tools that enhance international service.

Deaf Volunteers embody proof of the value of educating deaf children, a requirement – and an honor – not bestowed on hearing Volunteers. Their presence in leadership positions challenges accepted notions of what deaf children can become and the authority deaf adults can assume.

Get two or more deaf returned Peace Corps Volunteers together, and the stories start to ricochet, each vignette prompting another. Given time, Volunteers get quickly past topics such as lack of running water and occasional electricity to reveal concerns about the long-term opportunities for deaf children, or their discomfort with discipline methods accepted in the host country, or unease about importing American Sign Language while struggling with no known local sign for vocabulary.

They tell heart-wrenching tales of deaf children seen as evidence of past sins of the parents. They remark on the utter astonishment to their ability to read and write and the hope it inspires for families with deaf children. Volunteers despair when youth arrive at their schools as teens or older with no language skills because it was assumed they were uneducable.

Stories reveal what it means to grow up deaf in countries that are still working on basic human rights issues. At the same time, recollections spanning 44 years demonstrate progress in education, access and attitudes on what it means to be deaf. They teach us much about the ways societies respond to human difference.

All exhibitions are distillations; only a small part of any significant story fits on a wall. A new archival collection of images, along with video interviews and taped public events, offers the opportunity for a more in-depth exploration of deaf Peace Corps service. This exhibition is only the first part of a longer journey.

Jean Lindquist Bergey

Curator, Making a Difference: Deaf Peace Corps Volunteers