Adventures in Thailand
Part 3 - Setsatian
by Dan Brubaker
as featured in the January 1998 issue of
During my entire visit, I had stayed at the Setsatian School for the Deaf in the Dusit district, three long blocks north of the imperial Chitralada Palace (which covers an entire 4 city blocks, and has a moat all around with armed soldiers at interval stations) and the national zoo, on the other side of the King Rama V street. The school director, Maliwan Tammasaeng, received her doctoral degree from Gallaudet University. And she was gracious enough to allow me to use her apartment (with a hand-held remote control for the air conditioning unit. Fancy that!).
In Thailand, there are twelve schools for the deaf using a combination of sign language and oral methods (a.k.a. total communication), and all are supported by the royal foundation, which receives a "fifty-fifty percent" funding from the royalty and the government. In Bangkok, there are three residential schools, one being Setsatian (the first of the twelve schools), and the other two are Thung Muhamek and Nonthaburi. Each of the three schools has an enrollment of 360 students, with a majority of them being day students. To much of my surprise, many of them travel to school on public buses on their own, as young as seven or eight years old.
The grounds at the Setsatian is approximately as big as two football fields crowded with six two- or three-story school buildings, four small one- or two-room houses for the staff, a concrete courtyard in the front and another concrete soccer/basketball court in the back, and lots of palm trees. In the center lies an estate house, which once belonged to a royal relative, Lady Noranet Bancharkit. Upon her death, she willed her estate to the government for an establishment of a school for the blind. When the executors learned that Bangkok already had a school for the blind, they changed the will. Alas, Thailand's first school for the deaf was born in 1954.
Between 1954 and 1961, the school was known as "School for the Deaf." And in 1961, it was called the Dusit School for the Deaf. In honor of Lady Noranet Bancharkit in 1975, the school's name was changed once more again to Setsatian.
At Setsatian, eighty girls are housed in a dormitory headed by two female staff members (one of them deaf). Thung Muhamek has eighty boys in its dormitory, while Nonthaburi houses both boys and girls. And I was not even surprised at the 1:80 ratio because the students are very, very, very polite, a drastic contrast to our own residential school students here in the United States (where the ratio is usually one staff member per 8 to 10 students). They would stand up and bow each time I would walk by, entering or leaving a room, as well as the school grounds. I doubt I had even gotten over with this concept of being bowed to, during my entire stay. My friend, Beverly Buchanan, who has been teaching at Setsatian for three years as a VSO volunteer (the Canadian equivalent of our Peace Corps) would tell me to stop bowing back because the adults would just need to nod their heads when greeting.
I had spent several days with young deaf people, who would meet at the six story Mahboonkrong Mall on Sunday afternoons at the food court. And they would agree to meet on certain days at certain places and times, just like the good old days here in the United States (before the advent of TTYs). Almost all would be working at "blue collar" jobs - sewing clothes, developing photography, making clayware, doing carpentry or printing, and so on. Life is hard for those deaf people, and most of them live below the poverty level. Yet, they are loving and sharing, and that would put many of us, Americans, to shame for our selfishness. To this date, Beverly has succeeded in obtaining family and/or governmental support to send four young Thai people to Gallaudet University.
In a narrow four-story building at 52/22 Pan Road in the Silom district (a couple blocks from the infamous Patapong red-light district), the National Association of the Deaf in Thailand (NADT) employs a few artisans, who would cut, assemble and hand-paint wooden toys and wood-cut puzzles for sale at marketplaces. It is a kind of a job training for deaf Thai people.
The first floor lobby at NADT, even though minuscule, also functions as a makeshift "deaf club." And the second floor serves as offices for the director and other officers. Kritsana Lonlua, one of young and active officers of NADT, explains to me her hopes and long term plans for her organization. She said that NADT hopes to relocate to a better building and location, which would be accessible by more deaf people. She had attended a couple of World Federation of the Deaf regional conferences as well as the Tokyo convention, and had learned a lot in various ways and means in improving deaf people's lives in Thailand.
During one of Setsatian's early morning assemblies, I was asked by a young student leader (his name flees my memory, but I remember his c-shaped name sign on the cheek) of what I thought of the country, the city and the school after I had explained to them my recent travels in northern Thailand and Hong Kong. I replied that I thought that the best thing I saw in Thailand was the students at the school (and I threw in some quips). And we all laughed.
They may encounter Thai (and hearing) life resembling those traffic jams in Bangkok, and in their eyes, they carry hope and dreams which would untangle such jams in their own lives, one by one.
Post Script: Since I had written this article (afer re-visiting in December 1997), there has been some changes. The four small bungalows at the back of Setsatian had been torn down to make way for a new five-story apartment flats building. The National Association of the Deaf in Thailand had been relocated to northern part of Bangkok.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3