Nadia Nadarajah: My reunion on Reunion Island showed me how Deaf weddings should be

Posted on November 22, 2015

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I love travel. I absolutely do. It’s in my blood. I am fortunate enough to have lived in quite a few countries before moving to the UK back in 2009 .

One of the places I am proud to have lived in is Reunion Island. Some of you reading this may be scratching your heads wondering where is Reunion Island?

Well, a short geography lesson. Here goes… Reunion Island belongs to France but it is not in France. Indeed it is 5,717 miles France, in the Indian Ocean, in between Madagascar and Mauritius.

Reunion Island has a deaf population of approximately 7,000 people, this is out of a population of approx. 800,000. I think this is quite a high figure.

People are constantly surprised when I tell them this fact and that surprise is one of the reasons that I wanted to write this article about the amazing island and the strong deaf community presence there.

I went there back in 2006 to work as a Trainer and Facilitator and I stayed three years. I was absolutely captivated by the island, the beaches, the sun, the lifestyle and the deaf people.

I was offered an opportunity this year to have my own reunion on Reunion Island by attending the wedding of a very special couple.

I was proud to be invited to share in the couple’s special day and also revisit the Island again. The Groom is the President of the Association des Sourdes de la Reunion (ASR for short), which is the National Deaf Association and the Bride teaches LSC (Creole Sign Language) across the island and also voluntarily supports the ASR as their administrator.

I want to share with you this amazing wedding experience and I think it’s how all weddings with deaf people should be.

Nadia with the bride

Nadia with the bride

Firstly, the Marriage Official (Registrar) was a deaf man called Pascal Smith. Pascal was born on Reunion Island but when he was young he moved with his deaf sisters and parents to France where he was educated.

There was very little access on Reunion Island for deaf people and some there can be quite narrow-minded and think of everything deaf people can’t do – rather than what we can.

Pascal moved back to Reunion Island in about 2004 and was shocked that this Island, which flies the same flag as France, had very little if not no access for deaf people.

He went about instilling a self-belief and self-worth of the deaf community members on the Island and indeed the Bride and Groom at this wedding were strongly influenced by Pascal and his “can do” attitude.

The Bride and Groom both attended mainstream schools on the Island with little access to deaf role models. It was with Pascal’s arrival that their confidence grew and now look at them.

Both are highly successful and thriving. It seems right that the man who influenced this transition be the man to preside over the next chapter of their lives … their wedding day.

The laws of France state that a couple has to go to the Town Hall and register their intent to marry and the Mayor of that area will meet with the couple and go through the proceedings to register for a civil marriage.

On Reunion Island the tradition has always been for deaf couples to go to the Town Hall with a family member who would explain what was going on. Not so for this Bride and Groom. They knew that the Deputy Mayor of this area is fluent in LSF and so asked her availability and then waited for a date to go along and register their intent to marry.

IMG_7136And on that day, they invited all the members of the ASR to go along too so that they could see that deaf people can get direct access to information and register their intent to marry without going through a family member. How amazing to show the deaf “can-do” attitude in action. The couple were also joined by their families to share in this special occasion.

So, back to the big day itself! It was a beautiful day with the sun beaming down as we took our seats in the outdoors to witness this special wedding service.

In the mountains of the island we were in a converted Creole stable that had a view of the sea as Pascal started to lead the small private service. He led the wedding service using LSF and was translated in to spoken French by an interpreter.

For many of the Bride and Groom’s families, this was the first time that they had ever experienced listening to a voice-over. It was a huge awareness raising exercise for many as they saw that deaf people can do anything and that being deaf is not the barrier that they always thought it was.

IMG_7238After the ceremony was over I went off to the Reception to find my table. At the display at the front I was directed to the “South Africa” table. Great I thought, but slightly puzzled.

Surrounding tables were showing “China”, “Korea”, “Australia” and others. A strong worldwide connection. We later discovered from the couple that they had picked countries for the tables that they had visited and where they had learnt from the deaf experience in each of these places and brought back some of the different customs to Reunion Island!

South Africa was picked as the Bride and Groom went to their first World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) Congress there; Australia was picked as this was the first time the couple met on the plane as part of a group from the ASR to go to Australia and learn about their rights as deaf citizens.

What a great way to organise your wedding tables – Deaf worldwide experiences!

At most weddings I have been to, the Bride and Groom usually sit on a top table with their parents and the best man and bridesmaids and then their extended families make up the next few tables with friends further back. It’s almost like an unspoken wedding hierarchy.

Not so at this special wedding. As I glanced around the room, I realised that the extended family members of the couple were further away and the deaf group were in the middle at the front.

The Bride and Groom explained why saying that as much as they love and respect their family members they only see them once a month, once a year and the conversation is broken and limited. Communication is the key. The family members all nodded along in agreement.

The deaf group were in the middle as the couple sees them most regularly, they are frequent visitors and the communication is smooth and clear.

The couple explained without the deaf community, they’d be lost and probably wandering around at home wondering what to do with their lives. The deaf community of Reunion Island grounds them and supports them and so they wanted the honour these members by having them seated in the middle for their special occasion. Wow! Now there’s a legacy.

Throughout the day, the ceremony, dinner and speeches – everything was led in LSC. Now this is not just a story about accessibility, it’s also a story of true love.

The couple and others spoke eloquently about love and relationships and how hard you work to make a marriage successful. The Bride promised to support her husband as well as the ASR (of which he is the President) and he in turn promised to support her.

They are a shining role model for younger deaf people on the Island to look up to and show that you can be successful and committed in a relationship.

I know there was not a dry eye in the house as the couple gave their passionate and emotional speeches to thank everyone for attending. Many said how it was the best wedding they had ever attended and a real wake-up call in terms of deaf awareness and proof of what deaf people can do.

I left Reunion Island in 2009 and am pleased to see that the campaigning group for improved access for deaf people (of which I was a part) is still going strong and growing further. I know that from this wedding and the work of many on the Island, the experience of deaf people on Reunion Island will get better and better.

I was proud and privileged to witness this new union of Emmanuelle Boyer and Guillaume Fok-Yin on Reunion Island and I look forward to many reunions in the future.

 

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