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Annabelle Xerri: Raising awareness

Annabelle Xerri: Raising awareness

“If you want to go far, go together”

Queen’s Young Leader, Annabelle Xerri is the Vice President of Deaf People Association, Malta, and the Chair of the Maltese Sign Language Council. She tells Leading Change about leadership and teamwork.

Annabelle Xerri is a great believer in embracing the different perspectives and views of her co-workers. She refers to an African proverb she learnt from another Queen’s Young Leader – If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

“I frequently find myself thinking about this quote,” says Annabelle, who has been working with the team at the Deaf People Association, Malta, for about four years.

“I used to find myself thinking that it would be easier to do something by myself as things would get done faster. However, I started to realise that the other board members have great ideas and opinions too, sometimes even better than mine.”

She adds that being open to ideas is important even when you don’t agree with them, because you can learn from others. As an example, she recalls how she used to assume she was a better speaker than most of her colleagues.

“The feedback I used to receive was very positive,” she says.

But then came a day when it was decided Annabelle would give a talk with one of her team members. “We discussed how to deliver this talk together. I showed my colleague the skills I had and to my surprise, my colleague in turn showed me other skills related to deaf culture.”

These were techniques that Annabelle had never used and although she initially had a few misgivings, she was keen to try them out.

“The impact was by far greater, because my colleague and I come from different backgrounds and could deliver a talk about different experiences – his and mine.”

Raising money and awareness

The Deaf People Association Malta is not funded and relies completely on voluntary work. But Annabelle and her team at the Deaf People Association Malta have found an ingenious way to raise money and awareness at the same time.

They have started to organise football matches between deaf and hearing teams.

“The rules are that the hearing teams play like deaf persons, that is, they wear ear plugs and cannot speak or shout to each other during the matches. The referee also cannot use whistles but uses only flags.”

Two men on a football pitch with a trophy

President of Deaf People Association Malta Steven Mulvaney presenting a cup to Pierre Catania from the insurance company, MAPFRE MSV Life plc, after a Silent Football Tournament held in October 2016

This means all teams have a level playing field – literally and figuratively – because no one is hearing and everyone is signing or using body language.

“And the hearing teams that participate give us a donation,” says Annabelle.

Sign language

The Deaf People Association Malta has achieved huge progress since it was established.

In March 2016 a bill, making Maltese Sign Language an official language of Malta, completed its journey through the Parliament.

“There were three readings before that,” says Annabelle, “We had a number of meetings with the authorities to finalise the bill and to ensure that the council that the government wanted to set up, is made up of 51% deaf members.”

That council was the Maltese Sign Language Council and in November 2016, Annabelle was appointed as its Chairperson.

Since then, Annabelle and her teams from both the Deaf People Association Malta and the Maltese Sign Language Council, have lost no time in spreading awareness about sign language and promoting it in Malta and Gozo.

They have organised a basic sign language course at Malta's hospital so that staff can communicate more easily with deaf patients.

They were also involved with the organisation of the European Union of the Deaf (EUD) Annual General Assembly, which was hosted by Malta in May.

“We organised training for the staff at the venue where the assembly took place, to teach them a few basic signs, since they were going to deal with a large number of deaf delegates who came from across Europe.”

People at conference taking photos, notes and watching

The European Union of the Deaf Conference, Valleta, Malta in May 2017

This week (October 2017) the Maltese Sign Language Council and the Deaf People Association Malta  in conjunction with the Malta Health Student’s Association and the Association of Linguistics and Language Technology  are launching a campaign to teach a basic sign language course to scouts and medical health students. And, also in October, they are organising a seminar on “Bilingualism – Spoken and Signed Languages”.

Next generation

“The aim is to raise awareness about the importance of using both languages,” says Annabelle, adding, “Many parents are afraid to teach sign language to their children, thinking that if they learn how to sign, they will not learn how to speak. Unfortunately, some professionals believe this too.”

Annabelle explains that deaf children need to learn both spoken and signed languages so that they can get more access to information and communication.

Putting it simply she says, “Even if they learn how to speak, they still cannot hear!”

Annabelle has recently become a parent herself but has still been active with the Deaf Association Malta while on maternity leave – giving talks to children in summer schools throughout July and August. The talks were interactive, so she relied on sign language interpreters to understand what the children were saying.

“Children make the best audiences,” she says, “as they always ask so many good questions!”

Poster for the silent football tournament

“The rules are that the hearing teams play like deaf persons, that is, they wear ear plugs and cannot speak or shout to each other during the matches. The referee also cannot use whistles but uses only flags.”

Annabelle Xerri

Annabelle talking to children summer 2017

“Children make the best audiences as they always ask so many good questions!”

Annabelle Xerri