Our people - Riina Tirmaste
In my work as president of the Association I hear so many amazing stories. I wish I could record them for posterity. I sometimes do, when a story is really special, like this one.
I met Riina some years ago at an Association event. Later we spent an afternoon at the Zurich zoo. Riina is from the Estonian town of Viljandi and lives with her Swiss husband, Vincent, in Rances, a suburb of Yverdon. She has studied sewing and related crafts in Estonia and Finland. She told me about her love of sewing and said she could sew practically anything, from curtains to clothes to handbags. We talked about her “Roosike Couture” Facebook page and how she had learned French. Riina’s gaze followed my lips and she smiled broadly when answering. Initially one might think her slightly accented Estonian comes from living abroad. In fact she is deaf – she was born that way.
She lipreads Estonian without difficulty and answers in clear Estonian without knowing how she sounds to others or how loudly she is speaking. Even more amazing is the communication between her and Vincent, for he is also deaf - and his mother tongue is French.
There is a widespread misconception that deaf people around the world all share a single sign language. Actually each spoken language has its own sign language, even if International Sign is used for communication between deaf people from different countries. While there are only some 2,000 sign language users in Estonia, the worldwide total is 70 million.
Studies have shown that about 18% of adults worldwide have a hearing impairment. One or two children out of a thousand are born deaf. Increasingly deafness is diagnosed during gestation. None of Riina’s siblings is deaf; her disability presumably resulted from her mother’s contracting toxoplasmosis during pregnancy.
People are deemed to have a mild hearing impairment if they cannot hear sounds in the 15–20 decibel range, and to be deaf if they cannot hear a sound of around 70–80 decibels. Riina can hear sounds in the 80–90 decibel range and reacts to very loud noises. She is thus able to benefit from constantly evolving hearing aid technology. Vincent, however, belongs to the very small minority of people who are completely deaf.
How can two deaf people from different language communities get acquainted and communicate?
In Riina’s case, it happened through a girlfriend who played in a basketball tournament in Slovenia. Vincent, who is a basketball referee, was among the spectators and later contacted the friend online. Riina happened to be visiting her friend and started chatting with Vincent. The chat led to an online relationship and in 2005 Riina visited Switzerland. Later she moved there to live with Vincent in Rances.
She learned French sign language from Vincent’s mother and two friends of hers. Riina had already learned, in addition to Estonian sign language, the sign languages corresponding to Russian, German and English. While in Finland she had added Finnish Sign Language to the list. With her gift for learning sign language, learning French Sign Language took just six months. Riina told me she had had a rocky start and had had to study hard and take courses. Vincent has since learned a bit of Estonian Sign Language and he and Riina now sign with each other in Estonian and French.
They now have a son, Jonas, who has normal hearing, speaks French and Estonian fluently, and also signs in French and Estonian with his parents. He moves fluidly between spoken and sign languages and can communicate with his parents even when they are not next to him – without all the shouting that parents and children often use to get each other’s attention…
I was surprised to learn from Riina that deaf people have trouble writing, even though they are used to communicating through text messages and other forms of writing. Not being able to associate written words with their spoken forms, they have to memorize every word from scratch – rather like a foreigner learning Chinese characters.
Nevertheless, to maintain fluency in a given language – both in signing and in understanding speech and writing – deaf people benefit greatly from reading and from contact with speakers of the language. Riina says her Estonian has deteriorated somewhat in Switzerland because she has little contact with Estonian speakers who have normal hearing. She only visits Estonia once or twice a year. The family’s finances are tight: Riina has yet to find regular employment and Vincent’s income is modest. He has studied IT at a school for people with normal hearing and is a certified basketball trainer and referee. He knows how to sign in English, German and French and rudimentary Polish, Estonian and Italian. But even deaf people with a good level of education and training have trouble finding employment among the wider population.
Despite his hearing impairment, Vincent is able to drive a car, which enables the family to attend events such as Swiss Estonian Association gatherings. They also enjoy hiking and bicycling. While Jonas dreams of becoming a police officer, Riina herself hopes to someday develop her sewing and handicraft activities into a full-fledged business.
Continuing our walk at the Zurich zoo, we enter the Masoala rainforest, where a monkey’s shrieking suddenly startles the guests, who freeze in mid-step. Only Riina and Vincent keep walking…
Their silence is amazing…painful to behold, and yet also peaceful.
Wishing you a wonderful holiday season – and that you’ll be alive to your surroundings –
Mirjam Loertscher / 27.11.2016
Translation by Talvi Laev.