What is it like to have hard-of-hearing problems in Bulgaria? Meet Ashod Derandonyan
(Asho) – deaf from an early age, he is a successful business development executive and the CEO and Founder of ListenUp Foundation.
The organization’s motto states:“Deaf people can do anything…except hear.”
And it’s more than true. Asho and his team are a good example of that - currently focused on building a strong and confident deaf community through active advocacy for innovative education, digital technologies, and empowerment practices. Here’s how they do it.
Time for change
Ashod went deaf at the age of 2. Being a deaf student in Bulgaria at the time was far from easy.
Teachers (except for one) didn’t want deaf children in their classrooms. They were afraid that they couldn’t handle it.
“At the time, there was no policy for inclusion, and parents were keeping their children apart from the Deaf community. The only existing policy included giving money to the deaf, spreading the idea that the community owes them help and assistance. And this contributes to creating a dependency mentality,” shares Asho, adding that this must be changed by building a new generation of Deaf people, who want to roll up their sleeves and get the responsibility for a better society.
After graduating from the American University of Bulgaria, Asho has been working for several different projects with the United Nations Development Program and other organizations, later he lived in the US and Canada for about 5 years in total.
But 5 years ago, he decided to come back to Bulgaria to find out that nothing has changed in 20 years in the Bulgarian Deaf community.
“After negotiations with the Union of the Deaf in Bulgaria (UDB), we launched the Listen Up awareness campaign. Nevertheless, there was one problem – UDB was reluctant to invest their efforts in changing their policies from welfare to inclusion. That’s how the ListenUp Foundation was born.”
“The deaf and hard-of-hearing people are facing various challenges like the lacking recognition of the Bulgarian Sign language, among others. Once it becomes official by law, things will be much easier for the deaf community,” says Asho.
Another major hurdle is the lack of bilingual education for the deaf and hard-of-hearing people. The current educational system in the country doesn’t provide the necessary accessibility services. Furthermore, there are very few qualified sign language interpreters. Thus, many deaf people don’t have the chance to understand, learn, and develop their skills.
“Yet, the biggest challenge for our team is the high level of apathy in the Deaf community,” comments Asho, adding that his organization’s strongest aspiration is to change people’s mindset.
“We are working with the community on a regular basis with the aim to empower its members - encouraging them to listen to their voice, understand their needs and find solutions. Because change is possible, and the community should be its main driver.”
Driving positive change
“Most of the members of the ListenUp Foundation team are deaf or hard of hearing, young and active people. We have different backgrounds but common goals and values,” explains Asho.
His team is focused on implementing various projects with the goal of laying the foundation for a deaf-friendly and inclusive environment, as well as creating a more innovative education system in Bulgaria. For instance, they are behind educational practices, awareness campaigns, and trainings.
“Soon, we’ll start a mentorship program intended for young deaf people. We want to assist them in starting traineeships in diverse companies, supported by mentors, who are hearing people.”
One of the key projects ListenUp is working on is making the Bulgarian sign language official.
“If we manage to achieve that, an increasing number of people will start to learn and use it to facilitate communication and allow better comprehension.”
Finally, Asho tells us that they’re currently preparing the kick-off of a big new initiative, which will further empower the deaf community through education. “We’ll be glad to tell you more about it in a few months,” he says.
A diverse and united community
This January ListenUp Foundation became part of the Campus X community. The Foundation is establishing a Deaf Studies Institute along with an Innovative Deaf Video Center onsite at Campus X. When asked what prompted them to make this move, Asho replies:
“The team believes that Campus X is the right place for building an empathetic, diverse and socially responsible community, whereas the interaction between deaf and hearing people will turn into new friendships and connections.”
“All of us are very happy to work in such a friendly and supportive environment. We value the positive energy and already feel like home,” he adds.
Welcome home, ListenUp. We know you can do anything!