Where silence is eloquence

Special needs

Where silence is eloquence

A helping hand: The Sheila Kothavala Institute for the Deaf offers free schooling for the hearing impaired. Photo by the author

Libraries are generally quiet places with people poring over books while stern librarians enforce a strict silence. However, at Sheila Kothavala Institute for the Deaf (SKID), a school for the hearing-impaired in Bangalore, the library is deliberately made a lively and fun place with students encouraged to participate in as many activities as possible.
As Librarian Bindu K Rao explains, the hearing impairment of children interferes with their language skills and vocabulary-building, so they tend to have reduced interest in reading. Hence, there is need to motivate them through special activities. Of course, the reading material is the same as at a regular school.

It is initiatives and strategies like this that have made SKID one of the more respected institutions catering to hearing-impaired children. As it is often said, such children are locked into their own world––a world without sound. So, to help them emerge from that cocoon which cuts them off from much of the real world and to make them hear, understand, verbalise things, and interact normally with people around them, requires special  skills and dedication to their cause.

Auditory training & speech therapy
So, all students wear hearing-aids, and the SKID staff is trained in Deaf Education, explains Principal Jessy Samuel. The school follows the Karnataka School Board syllabus and the children appear for the SSLC exam. However, their curriculum also includes special subjects such as Auditory Training and Speech Therapy.

There are vocation-oriented classes, and extra-curricular activities like sports, drama, painting, and craft with the more talented students even holding exhibitions. “The children are particularly good at art and craft especially painting,” reveals teacher Latha Santhanam. It is probably because these arts do not require auditory inputs as such.

Teaching languages a challenge
While educating such children is indeed a challenge, the tougher task is the teaching of language. Since hearing-impaired students do not hear words clearly or not at all, they find it difficult to build vocabulary and construct meaningful sentences.
The hearing-aid can only amplify sound but it cannot make things heard by them exactly in the way that those with normal hearing do. So, the teachers use a lot of body gestures and signs.

There are many versions of sign language–––unfortunately, this system has not been standardised across the world. So, there is an American Sign Language or ASL, a British Sign Language and an Indian Sign Language too, among others. At SKID, teachers use ASL which uses one hand for indicating alphabets. Incidentally, the British form uses both hands. The teachers here, however, have modified ASL to suit Indian conditions and objects.

Hearing-impaired persons comprehend speech by learning to correlate the sounds provided by their hearing-aid with lip-reading. In fact, we are all often unconsciously lip-reading. Like when we watch films where actors speak American or British English. Or when the words spoken to us are unclear or faint for some reason as, for eg., when there is background noise.  Principal Samuel says that is why, when speaking to a hearing-impaired person, one should always face him/her and the light should be on one’s face to faciliatate their lip-reading. Also, talk slowly to them. But there is no need for exaggerated gestures which many people tend to employ when talking to the hearing-impaired, she points out.   

Free education
Students do not pay fees––education is provided free of cost. Because most students are from economically underprivileged classes, they can’t afford to pay any way. Students only pay for their books and school-uniforms, but even this cost might be borne by SKID in case of very economically deprived children. Besides, SKID purchases hearing-aids for some children since that is a mandatory requirement for all students, but not all come equipped with hearing-aids when admitted to the school.

A Behind The Ear (BTE) hearing-aid starts from Rs 7,400 approx and can go up to Rs one lakh depending on the digital programme. A less expensive option (though not as powerful as BTE) is the body-worn aid or pocket hearing-aid costing Rs 4,500 onwards.   
The institute is a grant-in-aid organisation sustained by grants from the government and individual philanthropists. The institute could do with help from individuals to improve its facilities and also purchase hearing-aids for its children, says Principal Samuel. All this will go a long way towards helping hearing-impaired persons interact normally with the world and integrate with the mainstream.

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