Dubai - What would you do if you went to a foreign country and you didn’t speak the local language?

You would probably resort to basic gestures and signs to find the directions to a coffee shop or the time a bus leaves.

“Why then is deafness considered a disability?”

That’s the simple question Kris Angel Lee uses to break the social stereotypes related to deafness.

As a volunteer in the Philippines, Lee learnt American Sign Language to work at support groups for deaf people. However, when she came to the UAE some years ago, she couldn’t really find a place to practise the language.

“I and my husband both love to speak in sign language. We both volunteered in the Philippines and in our family we even teach our children to use sign language,” she told Gulf News.

However, the trick to connecting with the deaf community is to simply strike a conversation with one deaf person.

“One deaf person will lead you to another and that’s how you build your network,” she said.

Sign language can vary from country to country, so one of the challenges Lee faced was realised that the UAE didn’t have its own sign language.

“I met a person from the UAE Deaf Association and saw him speaking to his family in sign language. When I asked him which country it is from, he gestured that it is a form of Saudi sign language,” she said.

Such issues compound the problems faced by people who have hearing loss.

Sabine Al Deek, a speech therapist at the Kalimati Institute in Dubai, said: “For children, early intervention is most important. If children are not diagnosed at an early age, they lose out on a lot of valuable time. This does not just affect their academic performance but also the inclusion in school. It isn’t impossible, but it does become harder.”

For adults, Sabine felt that while there were many initiatives aimed at including them in the workforce, greater implementaiton was necessary.

“There are some people who have been in the same role for 20 or 25 years. There has been no career growth. There are two reasons for it - one of course is education, but the other to some level is social stigma where people thing, well at least he has a job and are happy with it.”

However, in the past few years, Sabine has noticed a sea change in the social attitude towards greater inclusion.

“Now, children have to be tested for hearing by law and Dubai tourism has also introduced a drive to make sure the hospitality industry professionals can communicate in sign language. There is also a significant change in terminology, now instead of using hearing disability, people use the term deaf ability to change the perception people have of those who are deaf.”

If you would like to pick up on some simple words in sign language and grow your social network, the UAE Deaf Association is celebrating an awareness week from April 20 2017 to April 27.