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Deaf Student from Mali Overcomes Obstacles to Education
(“Deaf can!” says scholarship winner at Gallaudet University)
By Susan Domowitz
Staff Writer
Washington — One student entering Gallaudet University this fall already has accomplished the near-impossible. Mali’s Dana Benjamin Diarra overcame daunting obstacles, his hard work and persistence opening the door to a university education. Diarra is now a student at Gallaudet, the world’s only university designed specifically to provide equal access to education for the deaf.
Born in the region of Segou, Mali, in 1981, Diarra was deaf by age 6, and attended the local hearing school for a few years. Eventually, Diarra’s father learned of a school for deaf children in the capital city of Bamako, 240 kilometers away. Once enrolled at the Ecole Pour les Deficients Auditifs, Diarra learned sign language quickly, excelled in his studies and eventually was sent to France to earn certification as a sign-language trainer. He then returned to his school in Bamako and began teaching sign language to the youngest deaf students.
By the end of grade nine, Diarra had reached the limits of locally available educational opportunities. Because there was no secondary education for the deaf available in Mali, Diarra enrolled in a “hearing” school where no one signed. But, relying on what he could see on the blackboard and on his classmates’ notes, he went to the top of his class.
According to Kathleen Peoples, a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Bamako who had formerly worked at Gallaudet, access to quality education is difficult for students with disabilities in much of Africa. Resources are scarce and infrastructure is inadequate. Parents of disabled children often do not realize that these children can learn if given the proper tools. She said that deaf children frequently contribute to the family by doing menial work or by begging, but they are capable of so much more.
Diarra credits his parents, especially his father, with providing the encouragement he needed to pursue his goals. His father took him to school, and siblings helped him with his self-confidence. A breakthrough came when Diarra performed well enough academically to impress his skeptical school principal, who then persuaded the Malian Education Ministry that deaf students could be educated. Diarra also won over hearing classmates, who learned to sign.
“Deaf can!” Diarra says emphatically, a belief aimed at supplanting the widespread view in Africa that a deaf child has no future. It also meshes well with a well-known quote from Gallaudet University’s ( ) first deaf president: “Deaf people can do anything, except hear.”
Diarra was helped along the way by many people who realized his potential. In 2008, Diarra was working as an interpreter with an American student from the University of Texas who was doing research in Mali. The American student introduced Diarra to Peoples, who recognized Diarra’s drive and intelligence, and knew how limited educational opportunities were for him in Mali. Consulting with former colleagues at Gallaudet, Peoples nominated Diarra for the World Deaf Leadership (WDL) Scholarship, funded by the Nippon Foundation. The scholarship, awarded to one or two students from developing countries each year, funds a four-year course of study at Gallaudet and a fifth year for students to help them make a difference in deaf education in their home countries.
Diarra won one of these scholarships and arrived at Gallaudet in August.
About 1,700 students attend Gallaudet in a wooded area in the middle of urban Washington, where turreted Victorian buildings of red sandstone stand beside sleek modern buildings, athletic fields and dormitories. About 10 percent of the students are from outside the United States.
“I’m proud and grateful to be here,” Diarra told “Now that I am at Gallaudet, I know that I will be able to make significant contributions to improving deaf education when I return to Mali. It’s thanks to the World Deaf Leadership Scholarship, to Gallaudet University, Kathleen Peoples, others who helped me, and to my family that I have come this far.”
Asked what message he has for other deaf African students, Diarra said he would encourage them to be patient and persevere, especially if they are in hearing schools. “They need to work with the principal, they need to continue to push. Literacy is paramount,” he said.
“Many parents think deaf children can’t be educated, but we need to share our experiences so that everyone knows they can.”
Diarra, who began his Gallaudet education at the English Language Institute, said his first two weeks at university were full of new experiences, and that he especially appreciated the opportunity to meet other deaf students and learn their stories.
For Gallaudet teacher Alexander Quaynor, Diarra’s story of his childhood in Mali awoke memories of his own experiences as a deaf child in Nigeria. Quaynor had the good fortune to work directly with pioneering deaf educator Andrew Foster ( ), the first African-American graduate of Gallaudet. Foster went to Africa in 1957 as a missionary, believing passionately in access to education for deaf children. He established more than 30 schools for the deaf throughout Africa, in Benin, Congo, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Cameroon.
Foster’s admonition, “Never say ‘I can’t’ until you have tried it,” is never far from Quaynor’s mind.
Diarra says the World Deaf Leadership Scholarship, provided by the Nippon Foundation, will benefit not just him but all deaf Malians as he uses the scholarship to widen access to education for deaf students in Mali.
“The Nippon Foundation through its scholarship programs at Gallaudet has touched many lives and helped change the stature of deaf people in their society around the globe,” says Asiah Mason, Gallaudet’s director of programs for international students. “The scholarship may be for one person, but the work these scholars do when they go home to their country will change communities, government policies towards people with disabilities and much more.”
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site:
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