For most, getting your big break in TV takes years of trying to make it as an actor. But for Sophaphone Heuanglit, her journey onto our television screens is an altogether different one to what you might expect.
Sophaphone was first noticed as being the woman in the small box in the corner of the daily live-streamed COVID-19 updates. With her mask on, she remains composed while she moves her hands vigorously, and sometimes her entire body, to try and keep with the fast-paced pitch of the daily news update. But who is she? How did she get there? And why is she now one of the most frequent faces on our TV screens?
Sophaphone had never studied sign language, but she grew up surrounded by many wonderful friends who had hearing impairments. Gradually, she started picking up on the language out of enthusiasm to communicate with friends. As the years passed, Sophaphone had started her family and life got in the way. Her progress in learning this new language seemed to stop, and so did her access to the whole new world of deaf people.
Yet, 10 years later, a fortunate event then led Sophaphone’s path to cross with Ms. Chanlot Somngam, a woman with a hearing impairment, while on a leisurely walk by the Mekong River. The encounter caught both of them by surprise. Chanlot assumed Sophaphone to be deaf, because why else would another Lao person know sign language? So even after all these years, Sophaphone’s signing skills had not gone rusty, and neither had her passion for the language.
Her interest in learning the language came back immediately, and quickly set about immersing herself in the deaf community to try and improve. Not long after, Sophaphone had the chance to meet with many more deaf people and noticed the need for dedicated centre to teach young deaf people sign language, so they can access greater opportunities in life. And with support of kind-hearted and generous supporters, she founded the Hands of Hope Centre.
Sophaphone felt that she was where she was needed the most. She felt her life had new meaning, to serve and support her students. “I’m only here, through all the thick and thin because of them,” she shared, “when I was called Mother, that was how I knew I had to give my all. I had to be there for those who had put so much trust in me.”
Sophaphone called on the continued support of her great friend Chanlot, who joined Hands of Hope as a teacher. Although similar in age, Chanlot felt she had missed out on many of the important learning opportunities that Sophaphone had, all because she could never properly communicate with others. Even the simplest lessons in life, the ‘do’s and don’ts’, basic daily activities most of us take for granted, many deaf children go their whole lives without learning. And this is where the teaching of sign language, and the work of Hands of Hope, really becomes so important.
Before the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, Sophaphone had already begun working to support deaf people across the country by partnering with World Education Laos to help develop some short video clips for deaf people. But it wasn’t until the Center for Communication on Education and Health (CCEH) of the Ministry of Health (MoH) began their daily Facebook live-stream updates of the COVID-19 situation that Sophaphone became a household name, or face to be exact. To ensure deaf people could access important public health information, Sophaphone was invited to provide sign language interpretation as the pandemic first hit the country. But the government’s effective response soon meant the situation improved and the daily streams ended.
Nevertheless, the second wave hit Laos in April this year. But deaf and hard of hearing people across the country still needed important information on how to protect themselves and others from infection in their communities, as even their own families could not communicate with them because they did not speak sign language. As a result, Sophaphone received multiple calls from deaf community members who were worried and needed her to come back to their screens.
Sophaphone was ready but this time CCEH could not support her financially. “I told them it doesn’t matter, my friends are scared and I need to be there to help them understand”. For months, Sophaphone interpreted free of charge. But thankfully, CCEH actively sought for support and Plan International stepped in to provide some much needed assistance to allow her to continue her important work. Following this, World Education also committed their direct support to sign language interpretation for COVID-19 public health information, and UNDP have recently begun supporting the training of new sign language interpreters to ensure access to information for deaf people goes even wider.
Sophaphone wishes to raise awareness on the struggles and challenges faced by the deaf and hard of hearing community, especially in times of emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Her key message is that access to information is necessary and can save lives.
Currently, there are less than 10 qualified interpreters in the country. To best dedicate their support to the many hearing- impaired citizens in Laos, Sophaphone believes that we need more interpreters to be trained, and sign language interpretation needs to be made more readily available, not just during emergencies. Many people do not know, but there is no global sign language. Lao sign is different to English for letters or sentence structure. No training curriculum exist for Lao sign interpretation thus there is a huge need for not just more interpretation, but more interpreters, as there are an estimated around 80,000 deaf and hard of hearing people in Lao PDR.
Sophaphone shared, “deaf people are a gift. They experience the same sound, the same emotion and the same language. In their world, there is no racism, no skin color, no other languages. Most importantly, they are not a group, but a family where everyone speaks the same with compassion and care.”
Currently, organizations such as Plan, World Education and UNDP have been working with local partners such as Hands of Hope and others to the support the provision of sign language interpretation. The government is also gradually taking more ownership of this service with assistance from partners.
Ms. Aksonethip Somvorachit, Communication Analyst, UNDP Lao PDR
Mr. Noy Promsouvanh, Communication Manager, Plan International Laos
Mr. Souliya Ounavong, Communication and Liaison Officer, World Education Laos
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.