Sound sense

With only a tiny per­cent­age of Pak­istan’s deaf chil­dren in for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, the Deaf Reach pro­gramme is giv­ing the hear­ing-im­paired a chance to learn, says Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Friday - - Society - Sthekkepat@gulfnews.com @Shiva_fri­day

It’s a sin­gle-storey struc­ture in one of the many shanty slums around Karachi, Pak­istan. There’s noth­ing re­mark­able about the house with a sheet roof and bare un­paved floors – it’s much like the oth­ers in the area, which house mostly man­ual labour­ers. But the child who’s get­ting ready for school in­side this house is spe­cial.

Nine-year-old Nadeem Ah­san is wear­ing a uni­form, al­beit slightly crum­pled, and knot­ting a blue tie around his neck as he steps out of the grey sheet iron door, ready to board the school van that’s wait­ing out­side. Very few of the neigh­bour­ing chil­dren even go to school and cer­tainly not in such style.

In­side the van, a flurry of hands greet Nadeem. His friends have plenty to tell him, but the school van is quiet. In­stead of shout­ing, the young­sters’ fin­gers start to move fran­ti­cally, telling him their sto­ries. He replies with a few waves of his dex­ter­ous fin­gers.

Nadeem and his friends are just some of the 9 mil­lion peo­ple in Pak­istan who have some form of hear­ing loss. “That is around 5 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion,” says Richard Geary, founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Fam­ily Ed­u­ca­tional Ser­vices Foun­da­tion (FESF), a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion that runs the Deaf Reach Schools and Train­ing Cen­tres in Pak­istan, where chil­dren like Nadeem go to study. “Around 1.5 mil­lion chil­dren in Pak­istan are pro­foundly deaf and fewer than 10,000 at­tend school of some kind.”

Richard, 63, and his wife Heidi, 58, have taken on the task of ed­u­cat­ing and re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing the deaf in Pak­istan. They started work­ing with the hear­ing-im­paired af­ter they found out their son was deaf in both ears. “Be­cause of Michael’s hand­i­cap we started work­ing with deaf chil­dren to learn to help him,” says Richard.

The cou­ple had been work­ing in the so­cial sec­tor in Manila, Philip­pines, in the 1970s when Michael was born. His dis­abil­ity changed the na­ture of their so­cial work. “As we grew more ex­pe­ri­enced we started a small in­for­mal club for deaf teenagers, which we called Deaf Reach,” says Richard.

The club proved to be very pop­u­lar with deaf chil­dren, and the Gearys’ de­ter­mi­na­tion to for­malise this form of ed­u­ca­tion in­creased. By then they had a chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Michael through sign lan­guage, and they wanted other less for­tu­nate peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence this freedom.

This came about with a move to In­dia. “We had some col­leagues who were work­ing in In­dia who in­vited us to come and spend some time with them as they knew a lot of young deaf peo­ple who could do with help,” says Richard.

“We took up the chal­lenge and moved to New Delhi, In­dia, in 1986, where we con­tin­ued the Deaf Reach pro­gramme. And in about two years we had 519 teenagers from dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try who were part of the club. We pro­vided a fo­rum where they could meet, learn English and dif­fer­ent life skills, and we also as­sisted them in get­ting em­ploy­ment.”

Many more peo­ple to help

Af­ter two years the Gearys had to leave In­dia in or­der to re­new their visas. “We went to visit a friend who was liv­ing in Karachi in 1989,” says Richard. “There we got in­volved in help­ing him with some other so­cial projects. As we were un­able to re­new our visas to In­dia, and we re­alised there were a huge num­ber of deaf peo­ple with no ef­fec­tive means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in Pak­istan, we started our Deaf Reach pro­ject from Karachi 24 years ago.”

It was tough go­ing ini­tially, as they split their time be­tween the pro­ject and their son, who needed a lot of at­ten­tion. But as Michael picked up sign lan­guage flu­ently, the Gearys be­gan to get more in­volved in the pro­ject.

They es­tab­lished FESF with do­na­tions from var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try, and con­tin­ued the Deaf Reach pro­ject in Karachi. “Ini­tially we helped teenagers gain life skills and helped them find em­ploy­ment,” says Richard. “One of our bene­fac­tors do­nated two rooms in a build­ing, which en­cour­aged us to start a small class­room where we taught 15 pri­mary-level deaf chil­dren, in­clud­ing Michael, from the slum ar­eas of Karachi. That grew

slowly un­til we started a for­mal school in Karachi in 2007. Our school grew to 150, and we now have six schools with over 1,000 chil­dren.”

The dif­fer­ence the schools have made to the lives of th­ese young­sters is all too ap­par­ent. Take Amanat, one of the first stu­dents to be en­rolled in the Deaf Reach School at five years old. “His par­ents were at their wits’ end as he was a very hy­per­ac­tive child and they as­sumed him to be men­tally hand­i­capped,” says Richard.

Rel­a­tives ad­vised Am­nat’s par­ents to keep him at home un­til his be­hav­iour im­proved. “With the pa­tience and per­sis­tence of school staff and his par­ents work­ing to­gether to help Amanat, he is now one of the school’s best stu­dents,” says Richard. “He’s changed amaz­ingly since he joined and is now a very po­lite, well-man­nered boy who fre­quently ex­cels in his stud­ies. He’s now in class three and con­tin­ues to make good progress.”

Many of the stu­dents go on to be­come teach­ers them­selves, like Ashraf Mush­taq. The first in his fam­ily to be born deaf, Ashraf was very shy and with­drawn as a child. “He came to us as a teenager and did ex­cep­tion­ally well, grad­u­at­ing at the top of his class, though he was painfully shy,” says Richard.

But all that changed when Ashraf was of­fered a teach­ing po­si­tion in Deaf Reach. “His trans­for­ma­tion from a re­served, with­drawn per­son­al­ity into the con­fi­dent and fo­cused per­son he is now has been truly re­mark­able to ob­serve,” says Richard. “In an en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery­one speaks his lan­guage, Ashraf has shed his in­hi­bi­tions and is now mak­ing a hugely pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion to the lives of his stu­dents and co-work­ers.”

His ex­cel­lence in the class­room was rewarded when he was given one of two fully spon­sored open­ings to at­tend a six-week teacher train­ing course at a pres­ti­gious school for the deaf in Jor­dan. It was the first time he stepped on to a plane and his first time out­side of Pak­istan. Ashraf is also in charge of Deaf Reach’s job place­ment pro­gramme as­sist­ing young deaf adults to find gain­ful em­ploy­ment.

The Deaf Reach cam­puses lo­cated in the Pak­istani cities of Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Nawabshah and La­hore form the only branch net­work of schools for the deaf in both ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas in the coun­try. Daily trans­port up to a ra­dius of 40km from each cen­tre is pro­vided for all stu­dents. Fa­cil­i­ties cover all train­ing costs, inclusive of books, school sup­plies, vo­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als, trans­port, uni­forms, healthy snacks and ex­cur­sions.

In ad­di­tion to aca­demics, each stu­dent re­ceives train­ing in a min­i­mum of five mar­ketable skills. Tech­nol­ogy is used ex­ten­sively to re­in­force vis­ual learn­ing, with all chil­dren mas­ter­ing IT skills from kinder­garten. Stu­dents ul­ti­mately be­come lit­er­ate in three lan­guages: sign lan­guage, Urdu and English. So far more than 5,000 deaf stu­dents have passed through the Deaf Reach pro­gramme.

“Our schools take a holis­tic ap­proach, teach­ing both sign lan­guage, which is the na­tive lan­guage of the deaf peo­ple, and also life skills,” says Richard.

“Sign lan­guage is not in­ter­na­tional and is in­dige­nous to each coun­try. In Pak­istan the na­tive lan­guage of the deaf per­son is Pak­istan sign lan­guage. There is a school [of thought] that says deaf peo­ple are not nec­es­sar­ily dis­abled but sim­ply speak a dif­fer­ent lan­guage and are thus a mi­nor­ity cul­tural group who need to be em­pow­ered through ed­u­ca­tion.

“Our schools pro­vide a cur­ricu­lum that is on par with the lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, our chil­dren take the govern­ment ex­ams and have the same ed­u­ca­tional cur­ricu­lum that all other chil­dren in Pak­istan have. In ad­di­tion to that, we have skills train­ing as they grow older.”

Straight A stu­dents

The deaf chil­dren proved they could com­pete with reg­u­lar stu­dents when they took the govern­ment board ex­am­i­na­tions. “This year all our years of work have come to fruition with our stu­dents sit­ting for the ninth grade ex­am­i­na­tions, the Ma­tric­u­la­tion Board ex­ams taken by all school stu­dents in Pak­istan, and they all cleared it with straight A grades,” says Sarah Shaikh, mar­ket­ing man­ager of FESF.

Ev­ery class­room is equipped with com­put­ers. The morn­ing school ses­sions are for chil­dren and af­ter­noon for adults. Vo­ca­tional train­ing starts from ju­nior classes with arts and crafts

and IT. From grade six on­wards it ex­pands to ev­ery­thing from culi­nary arts to fash­ion.

“A well-known fash­ion school in Karachi, Asian In­sti­tute of Fash­ion De­sign, holds pro­grammes for our stu­dents and teach­ers, so we have a com­bi­na­tion of deaf teach­ers and stu­dents go­ing through a fash­ion cur­ricu­lum,” says Sarah. “The idea is to see that they pro­duce stuff that will be bought not out of sym­pa­thy for our stu­dents, but be­cause they are very pro­fes­sion­ally pro­duced.”

The em­ploy­a­bil­ity of the stu­dents is in­creased greatly. “Around 400 of our stu­dents have been em­ployed so far through the pro­gramme,” says Sarah. “Five KFC out­lets are run by our past stu­dents, six to 10 in each, with only a man­ager to su­per­vise them. Shell Pe­tro­leum’s Shell Awaaz pro­gramme ab­sorbs

‘Deaf peo­ple are not nec­es­sar­ily dis­abled, but sim­ply speak a dif­fer­ent lan­guage’

chil­dren from our schools who are qual­i­fied for their jobs. Some banks, freight-for­ward­ing com­pa­nies and salons also em­ploy our stu­dents.

“Usu­ally the com­plaint in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries is that you train chil­dren but they are not given jobs. So we started tack­ling the prob­lem from both ends by help­ing in the ab­sorp­tion of the deaf in the work­force, plus giv­ing them lit­er­acy, scholas­tics as well as life skills, groom­ing them for life. It’s a very suc­cess­ful model.”

That is what keeps Nadeem’s par­ents send­ing him to school, even though some of their neigh­bours send their sons to work in fac­to­ries to aug­ment mea­gre fam­ily in­comes.

Strength­ened by tragedy

Many years ago while study­ing in the US, Michael was killed in a tragic ac­ci­dent. This only strength­ened the Gearys’ drive to keep help­ing the deaf. “This is a kind of legacy of Michael’s,” says Richard. “We have to keep go­ing for his mem­ory.”

Al­though he’s al­ways look­ing to im­prove, Richard is very proud of what the Deaf Reach pro­gramme has achieved. “We’ve set up what I think is a very in­no­va­tive ed­u­ca­tional model that is very repli­ca­ble and scal­able, and we are the only school for the deaf in Pak­istan that has branch net­works in ru­ral ar­eas,” he says.

FESF col­lab­o­rated last year with a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion in Adana, Turkey, to open a Deaf Reach cen­tre. “It’s been very suc­cess­ful and meets a need there sim­i­lar to Pak­istan,” says Richard. “I think there’s scope for a pro­ject like this in many places in­clud­ing the UAE, as deaf­ness is like an in­vis­i­ble hand­i­cap. There are deaf peo­ple every­where who are not al­ways get­ting the ser­vices or ed­u­ca­tion they re­quire.”

Sarah sees many ways that Deaf Reach can be adopted in other coun­tries. “For in­stance, our par­ent train­ing pro­grammes,” she says. “We bring in the par­ents ev­ery fort­night to bring them up to speed on what their chil­dren are learn­ing and how it’s en­rich­ing their life, and we also give them sign lan­guage classes so they can com­mu­ni­cate.

“It opens the doors for com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The child who was once ap­proached by their par­ents with hes­i­ta­tion, with limited vo­cab­u­lary, or even shunned, now has an en­riched vo­cab­u­lary and they emote and com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter, thereby mak­ing their life eas­ier.”

Sarah sees Deaf Reach’s teacher train­ing pro­gramme as an­other op­por­tu­nity for growth. “Ev­ery six months we bring in our teach­ers from our re­gional schools for re­train­ing and our team vis­its the schools pe­ri­od­i­cally, so what­ever skill sets are learnt in any one school are trans­ferred to the oth­ers,” she says. “Some of our train­ing pro­grammes are repli­cated in other cen­tres on­line by Skype.

“Most of all, it is the re­al­i­sa­tion that deaf peo­ple can do any­thing ex­cept hear,” says Sarah. “If you go into a class­room full of deaf chil­dren you feel left out be­cause of the vivid and imag­i­na­tive way they com­mu­ni­cate with each other. They’d con­verse, joke and have so much fun I’d feel left out. It en­cour­aged me to learn the lan­guage and now it’s a re­ally in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause you get to see a dif­fer­ent side of a com­mu­nity.

“There are deaf jokes and they are happy peo­ple, very mo­ti­vated and ded­i­cated and with great mem­ory and sharp skill sets. Once you teach them some­thing prop­erly it’s in­grained in their mind. They are also very com­pet­i­tive.”

But Richard feels there’s a long way to go. “There’s a huge gap that has to be met,” he says. “Bridg­ing the gap is ev­ery­one’s dream, and I think a lot can be done. If we mo­bilise pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors, cre­ate aware­ness and make op­por­tu­ni­ties for the deaf, we can make a big im­pact even if we don’t bridge the gap.”

The pro­gramme de­pends on do­na­tions, both cor­po­rate and in­di­vid­ual. FESF part­ners with Eti­had Air­lines, and when pas­sen­gers do­nate air­miles it trans­lates to do­na­tions for stu­dents.

“Our aver­age cost per child is around Dh200 per month,” says Richard. “Any­body can spon­sor a child, or a class­room of 15 chil­dren. This way we can be sus­tain­able and give op­por­tu­ni­ties for more kids to ac­cess ed­u­ca­tion.”

Madiha and Zahid, top, have man­aged to find em­ploy­ment, thanks to Deaf Reach. There are five KFC out­lets in Pak­istan that are op­er­ated by mainly hearingim­paired em­ploy­ees, above. The Deaf Reach chil­dren bagged straight A grades, top right, in this year’s Ma­tric­u­la­tion Board ex­ams

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