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Communication: the cornerstone of education

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Communication: the cornerstone of education


It began with a simple question during a debrief of the site visit: “Do the children gesture?”

Let me begin from the beginning. My involvement with Jeevan Gnanodaya Charity School (JG) began in 2006. I was only fund-raising for the school as a marathon runner. It was an appropriate fit given my interest and background in Sign Language Linguistics and Bilingual Education here in the United States. During one hot Illinois summer, I sat through a meeting to listen to a debrief of one of our fellow students who had returned from a site visit with JG. I suspected the school functioned as an oral programme in which the focus rested on Speech Therapy. But I wanted to know how these students interacted naturally. You know, when the grown-ups weren't looking.


So I asked, “Do the children gesture?”

Little did I realise how this question would open up the floodgates. We began wondering what kind of teaching was going on at the school. We called in the reinforcements (that is, the experts) including Madan Vasishta and Gaurav Mathur, both of whom are renowned scholars in Deaf Education and Sign Language Linguistics.

My background and passion forced me to impose suggestions such as the use of Indian Sign Language, home visits to student's homes, talking with parents of the students, understanding community resources. All of my efforts came via emails from Illinois, California and Washington, DC. Regardless, Mr Devarajan, school founder and director, appreciated my suggestions, which were a pleasant surprise to me. In my experiences, my thinking was inevitably influenced by my American-ness, having never observed any educational programmes in India. I tried to propose ideas carefully, but firmly. Finally, in 2010, it was my turn to visit the school. I was going to meet Mr. Devarajan for the first time after corresponding for 4 years. It was going to be like meeting an old pen-pal!

I visited Chennai and with the help of my future sister-in- law acting as my Tamil/English interpreter at the school. We visited the school next morning and met Mr. Devarajan. He invited us to sit down and described and explained the school and the program to Raji and me. Mr. D told us that he appreciated my perspective because my goals always assumed these students would achieve successful lives and contribute to society, rather than just getting them through the system. He explained that his son, Jeevan, for whom the school was named, was born deaf. He began this school out of frustration of the lack of education opportunities for Jeevan.

Mr. D set a schedule for us. The morning was to be spent observing the youngest children's classes, about 20 minutes per class and we were welcome to ask questions of the teachers and students. During lunch we were to debrief Mr. D about our observations. We were to spend the afternoon observing intermediate children and have a lengthy debrief after school. The following day would be spent observing the older children, the vocational training programme, and the primary school for hearing children. Our days would be full and we would be eating 15-course meals. Bring it on.

What I witnessed over the next two days there was nothing short of loving and dedicated individuals working in and around a rigid system of board exams, a school culture of students adapting to teachers (rather than vice versa), and most importantly -- a system that has no place for students with special needs. My frustrations stemmed out of seeing a lack of child-teacher interaction no matter how much I tried to convince myself that this was the culture and I could not impose my American ideals. In India, where there were 60 to 80 students in a classroom taught together, it was impossible to give individualised instruction. God forbid a student had not been identified as having a disorder, delay or simply a difference; they would be lost in the sea of students competing for top marks. It would be right to say that, India's mainstream education has failed deaf children.

Back to the school, these students are happy to be at JG. The teachers love these students. Mr. D is dedicated to this school above and beyond any director I have ever seen. Everyone is teaching the only way they know how, the way they were taught. Mr. D and the teachers were taught by teachers who did not individualise their instruction for small classes, so this


is likely a new concept to them. JG's classes only have 6-10 students per class, so focusing on each student's needs is potentially much easier. I also noticed the teachers speak their lessons with occasional pointing to words on a board or to a diagram they have drawn themselves. The students wrote whatever was on the board. The teacher asked questions and invited answers - usually just one word. I did not see time or opportunities for discussions on more abstract and complex concepts (i.e. "What is a citizen?" The students responded "India".). I should also mention that the 10th standard students were preparing for their board exams, so pressure was high at that time. In one 8th standard class, the students signed and mouthed something to the teacher - and the teacher signed "AMERICA". That was the only instance of a teacher signing (except for the Deaf teacher who teaches Engineering Drawing). I looked at the students and signed in American Sign Language, "YES. AMERICA. I'M FROM AMERICA." Their eyes grew large and all the students looked up at me. All of the students looked at their teacher asking if they could ask me questions and I nodded YES! YES! The students began to sign and the teacher interpreted in Tamil at which point Raji interpreted to me in English. I signed my answers back in ASL and they understood me. They were so excited and I was simply beside myself!

The students are dedicated to each other. Their interactions (when no one is looking) are in gestures and signing. They sign and occasionally mouth words in Tamil. Their interaction is completely normal and expected in a deaf setting. They are passing Indian Sign Language down from older students to younger students and will eventually pass the language to the next generation.

Some suggestions that I have based on my observations:
Indian Sign Language: I am not against the children receiving Speech-Language Therapy. However, this technique should be used only to teach the children to speak and how to use their visual and auditory localisation skills. The language of the classroom should be Indian Sign Language. In the case of deaf children, they learn best by communicating with signing. That means that the students should be learning their content (school subjects such as Math, Science, etc.) in Indian Sign Language.

Use of visual teaching aids. Teachers and classrooms need visuals such as posters of realistic pictures and historical figures, diagrams, alphabet letters, labels (in the language medium of the school or home), flash cards with colorful pictures and textures, magnetic letters and numbers, clay for molding, small toys hidden in rice, globes for older children, etc.

Technology is essential: There is a wealth of technological devices that have made the Deaf world much smaller. Most Deaf families in the US are equipped with wifi internet, computers with web-cameras, video phones, Video Relay Services (VRS) for relaying calls between Hearing and Deaf people, closed captions on public broadcasting, and others. Learning technology is essential for all children in this generation: Deaf children would have a leg up in their education with proper technology.

School-Home Connection: Parents must advocate for their children's needs and schools must meet these needs. This way, there is no way students could fall between the cracks and deaf children would be at par with other children.

Natural parenting: It is natural for parents to be scared, perhaps lose their confidence when they notice their children have a developmental delay either for unknown reasons or congenital. Although I view deafness as a linguistic minority rather than pathology. I also am a firm believer that whatever you do naturally as a parent is the right thing. Even if your child is receiving Speech Therapy and Audiology training, you are allowed to gesture, point, and hug your child in order to communicate. These motions will not deter your child from learning to speak, but not having a proper relationship will. The single most important factor in raising a happy, healthy child is ensuring that you have a happy, healthy relationship. The learning curve will take longer for both parties, but the long-term effect is worth it.

For the record: Yes, the kids at Jeevan Gnanodaya gesture. And they do so much more!

Sound of Silence | CULTURE

Poetry in Motion:




A stad Deboo, a pioneer in modern dance has been known to create dance performances that are an amalgamation of various techniques. Trained in both the Indian classical dances and the Western formats, he has fused both forms to create a style that is uniquely his. “My work is dance, even while sometimes being theatrical. Though at times it has elements of theatre, it is still dance,” is how he describes his work.

Amongst his several collaborations has been his association with a deaf theatre company called the “Action Players” of Kolkata which resulted in a fruitful artistic association with the deaf performing arts community in India. Today, working with deaf performers has become an integral part in his body of work. The work that began with the “Action Players” was initially on a small scale. “I basically offered to do a workshop with them. For the first two years it was just a 4-day-workshop. In two workshops the actors expressed a desire to do a longer workshop. In the third year I gave them a workshop that lasted for three weeks. That is when I thought that I could design a show with them,” he says as he explains the evolution of the performances that he created with the deaf actors.

The work with the “Action Players” came with its share of challenges. For one, it was not very easy to raise funds for a production like this. “Enlisting support and funding for art is not as easy as you can imagine. It is always the biggest challenge when one sets out to create new productions,” Astad says. He did eventually find support and on occasions even turned producer himself.

The other challenge was that this group was made up of trained actors, and not dancers. Astad had to spend a lot of effort teaching them to dance and emote at the same time. While he worked on a shorter-length show with these actors, this also paved the way for him to create a full-length production with another group, the Clarke School for the Deaf, Chennai.

The girls from the Clarke School were trained dancers and this made Astad's experience of working with them a little different. “The difference between the Action Players and the Clarke's Girls was that the Action Players included actors who needed to be trained in dance, while the Clarke girls already had a vocabulary of Bharatanatyam, so the whole approach was different. With the Clarke girls I did a full-length show, lasting seventy minutes.”

The work done with the Clarke School girls is what he describes as his most challenging work till date. The show called Contraposition, was based on the Navarasas (nine


emotions of life). With Bharatanatam as the base, the production turned out to be an effective juxtaposition of love, laughter, fury, compassion, disgust, horror, heroism, wonder and peace. Astad has worked with deaf performers for over twenty years and evolved a method to train and communicate effectively. While he himself does not use sign language, he still manages to effectively communicate and train them in dance. “The only thing I did was to make sure that I was speaking in front of them. I wouldn't sign very much. In Clarke's School for example, I had both English speaking and Tamil speaking girls. I had an assistant who would explain certain nuances to them, and I would communicate visually. I didn't see it as a big difference.”

Since his dancers cannot dance by ear, he taught them to respond to musical vibrations and a special eight-count gesture system. In the case of the Clarke School girls who already had Bharatanatyam training, he could even go up to sixteen-counts. That aside, thump on the planks of a floor, or a change in lighting served as cues during performances.

A thorough professional, he was also a strict teacher and did not make any concessions for his students just because they were deaf. It hadn't been easy, he confesses. “All my kids are sensitive. Sometimes I got frustrated and shouted. Given that the kids had no training in acting or dance and my work is minimalist in terms of style, it wasn't always easy.” This made him push his performers to the extent that the audience saw them first and foremost as artists and not as deaf performers.

Appreciation thus poured in from every quarter – from Rashtrapathi Bhawan in front of Dr APJ Kalam who insisted on a post performance dinner, to various auditoriums across the globe. “There have been so many times when the audience has been completely overwhelmed by the skill and talent of the dancers. Once during the performance by Clarke School girls, I stopped the music and the girls continued to dance! That showed the audience how in tune they were with the performance, their synchronisation and grace. The appreciation and applause went up by notches when they realised that there no other cues given to them,” Astad recalls.

Astad and his dancers have also performed specifically for the deaf community. The interactions that his performers had with others in the community, have always been very enriching for them. “In 2000, when I performed at Gallaudet University, the deaf community was there from all over the world. Thereafter, whenever I have performed I have always made sure that I have a morning performance for the local deaf kids and the evening would be for adults, as well as a mixed audience,” he says. In such forums, the girls not only performed, but they also conducted workshops on their own


and thereby becoming role-models within the community. Astad along with a student Krithika from the Clarke School performed at the Deaf Way in Washington D.C., a conference that brings together about 10,000 deaf people from 100 countries to exhibit deaf art, strengthen bonds and further deaf discourse. Astad has also conducted workshops for deaf people in Mexico and Hong Kong.

His word of advice to other interested deaf persons is, “It is not a bed of roses. There is no 'romance' in contemporary dance; your work will have to speak for itself. You have to work hard.”He also underscores the important role that the media and corporates need to play in supporting the arts. "While corporates go out of their way to sponsor other cultural events, they don't take equal interest in performances by deaf dancers. It would be nice if they would support and provide patronage for the arts space." Astad also feels that the media and the public at large typically views most of these performances through the 'human interest angle' and not really as art. This, he says is not fair on performers who wish, at the end of the day to be evaluated for their talent more than anything else. “They are artists first, I want you to look at them as performers and judge them as artists,” he says.

Astad is currently working on a production with street children in collaboration with a New Delhi based NGO called the Salaam Balak Trust. He does plan to get involved with a deaf school in Bangalore in the future. He also wishes to work with people with other kind of disabilities with an interest in the performing arts. Astad wants to commit his creative time and energy into these new works. “My intention is not to create an overnight sensation. I want to make sure I devote quality time and energy,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues to create new forms, nurture them and then go on to create newer ones. Innovation remains the cornerstone in all of Astad's work.

Sound of Silence | REALITY CHECK

EDUCATION of the deaf in India: A REALITY CHECK


Arun Rao is the Executive Director of the Deaf Way Foundation and has been asscociated with other organizations like the Association of Sign Language Interpreters. He is presently involved with the setting up of the new Indian Sign Language Research and Training Institute.


Education for deaf people in India is very close to being an oxymoron. Deaf education has been around for over a century. There were schools in India dating back to the 1800s. The missionaries who saw the need, established many schools long before India's independence. The methods used were oral. The efforts to use sign language were suppressed and children were punished for using signs. This continued right through independence and prevails till date. As I write this article, there are no teachers of the deaf who are deaf, and there are no teachers of the deaf in India who have formally learned to sign or as part of the Bachelor of Special Education (Hearing Impairment) programme. Deaf persons are not allowed into the Bachelor of Special Education (Hearing Impairment) programme because they cannot teach using group hearing aids and cannot provide speech therapy to the deaf students. That is the background.

Let me start of by asking the qualified hearing teachers of deaf children, who are giving the child the 'needed' auditory inputs through group or personal hearing aids and are providing speech therapy/inputs whether they have done the job of “educating” the deaf child in their care. The answer will be a resounding “no”. However, there are teachers who are concerned about this and willing to admit that they have failed. The biggest fallout of this is that the student will fail to achieve his / her potential, and as a result, fail to provide for his / her family and be independent. This will result in a number of psychological, social, physical and financial problems as well. It is not just that the teacher feels bad and is bold enough to say 'I am unable to teach well enough since the children don't seem to be getting the point.' The teachers are frustrated beyond measure by the lack of communication between them and their students.

I visited a deaf school of repute and with the Principal's permission, visited the classrooms. The Principal consented. The 5th standard class had 5 girls and 6 boys huddled around a Group Hearing Aid. I asked her how the children communicated. Her reply was “Oh we don't use signs only pure oral communication”. As we were speaking I saw all the kids discussing me and the Principal in sign language behind her back. I then asked the teacher to ask any of the children what their favourite fruit was. The teacher called one of the girls and asked her the question slowly and clearly speaking into the mike. Nothing registered with the child. She repeated and articulated even more slowly and exaggerated her mouth movements. No luck. After the third effort, she nervously picked another child. This poor girl could not understand at all. Finally the first child pulled off her headphones and came to the teacher. The teacher now began using gestures and mime, when I commented on her use of gestures she stopped and looked horribly under pressure. Seeing her complete inability to communicate I said 'please use gestures or writing or anything”. She wrote the question on the board. The children all took off their headphones and came to the board to read. Laboriously they read the question each being corrected for their pronunciation and diction and none of them could comprehend the question at all. The teacher went back to her gestures and mime and then they began lip reading the word as she pointed to 'fruit' and 'like' and then they got the point. Then at the end of 15 minutes, one of the girls came up with a fruit she liked. I went through the other 8 kids in signs and asked which fruit they liked and in their home signs they each signed their favourite fruit. It took about 30 seconds. The horrors that deaf children go through in the best (sic) of deaf schools with trained(sic) teachers with graduate degrees in education of the deaf is to be seen to be believed. This experience made me consider home schooling my child.

My own daughter Abi was diagnosed profoundly deaf. As a


father, I wanted the best for her and registered her in one of the most famous schools in the country. She was highly stressed and under great tension there. She would look at her book that the school had given us and that would make her scream her lungs out. She knew the drawer where the book was kept and each time we went to the drawer to go through her speech lessons she screamed the house down. My wife went through a nervous breakdown during the last three months of our time there. We had to stop going to that school.

While working among deaf people over the past twenty years, I have met many very sincere dedicated teachers who genuinely love the deaf children and are very sincere in their work. It breaks my heart to see them suffering through the methods they use to teach. After all their efforts, they have nothing to show for it. It is a wonder they are not all depressed. The mechanism to account for failures in our lives is built into our psyche. “Oh they are deaf; how can they do better?” “Poor kid is trying so hard to do well but deaf people can't read properly with comprehension.” I believed them because I knew nothing better and had seen nothing better. Then reading books on deafness from the USA by deaf people and hearing of the “Cycle of low expectations”, I saw the light.

The inability of the 850 odd schools for the deaf to provide students for college level learning is the greatest indictment of our educational system. The huge dropout rate and the menial level at which deaf people live and work in India indicates the failure of the educational system. The educational system held hostage to failed ideas is too myopic even to evaluate its own failure. Recently an extremely senior educator of the deaf in an official paper submitted on “communication strategies with deaf”, described sign language as a method to be used only with dysfunctional and retarded deaf people.

Any system of work has evaluatory processes to measure success and failure. The Indian special education system in place with regulatory body and training body and so on for more than 25 years has never been evaluated. Why are deaf children functionally illiterate even after completing their Xth grade examination? The national agency has not even ensured that each state would have one government school up to senior secondary level. This is in a country with 10 million deaf people and no government colleges for the deaf.

As and when these questions are asked, they are shown the case studies of deaf 'success' stories; inevitably orally capable, upper middle class, with educated parents, financially stable homes, where one parent, fully dedicates their life to making sure their child made it through. I have no grouse against these and I commend their fortitude but we are responsible for all our deaf children not just the privileged few, which perhaps make up at most 5% of the total deaf population. What happens to the remaining 95% who cannot afford to use and maintain hearing aids, cochlear implants and have no financial stable households? There is no answer. Dogmatism is also deaf.

Over the past twenty years I have seen a precious few who benefit from hearing aids but I have seen thousands who could benefit from a more open system where other


methodologies than oral/aural teaching could have given them skills and a life full of meaning, learning, and adventure.

The latest craze is the “Education for all” campaign being perpetrated on innocent deaf children by the state. By the “Right to Education” Act and under the “Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan”, all children are to go to neighbourhood schools. All my friends who are disability activists jumped on this bandwagon and pushed “Full Inclusion” with a will. It made a lot of sense to them and the 'human rights' angle was extremely appealing. Certainly the idea is right and in many cases it is certainly the right thing to do. But they did not reckon with babudom. The Government agreed to put all the children in the neighbourhood schools and then coolly washed their hands off the matter. The disabled are in school. No Problem!

What happened to trained therapists, support teachers, Braille books, interpreters, sign language teaching, oral/aural support, loop induction systems, basic care of the deaf/disabled child in the classroom? No provisions are made. As of today, 1.25 million government schools are covered by the “Education for all” project, and at the current rate of education it will take 60 years to put one “Special educator” to set up a resource room in each school to ensure “full inclusion”. What about one interpreter per child? What about note takers, resource teachers, extra tutoring language access and so forth? Not considered yet, but yes, you are fully included. While in actuality, these children are fully excluded.

Recently I was at a meeting discussing the Right to Education Act and the implementation of it. I said “I am really happy that my deaf child can go to any school but is that school ready to accept my child and has the means to educate him? Do they have the capacity to do so? The special schools are yet to be able to do it.”

The Right to Education Act is wonderful but let us open our eyes to the corollary, I have the right to be educated and if no one educates me in my school, then who is to take the fall for it?

Arun Rao is a long-time hearing ally of the Indian Deaf community. He has played a significant role in many deaf-related organizations such as the Deaf Way, the Indian National Association of the Deaf, and the Association of Sign Language Interpreters. Recently, he has been involved in setting up the new Indian Sign Language Research and Training Institute.

Gaurav Mathur an Associate Professor at Gallaudet University had interviewed him for Success & Ability. Here are some excerpts from the interview in which he shares a bit about himself and his work with the deaf community.

Who was the first deaf person that you met? How did you meet her?
It was February 16, 1987 in Delhi, in the ICU section of the Batra hospital. We were huddled around a bed containing a 5-month old cute baby, and she was screaming at the top of her lungs as the doctor injected her with her 72nd shot of penicillin of the last 12 days. The doctor smiled at us and told the mother the baby was doing much better. “It takes strength to scream that loud,” he said, as if it were a panacea for the mother's term of horror in the ICU. We watched a baby packed in ice like a Coke bottle and then massaged into warmth. This was repeated for hours till the 108F fever came under control. That was not something we planned on experiencing in our lives, and yet at the age of 23, this is what I was subjected to. The 'encouraging' voice of the doctor rang in my ears as my wife and I grasped at any straw to hear that our beloved child would live. She did live against all odds. Abigail was a fighter and has always been a toughie.

There, at the end of our time in the ICU, we were told the harsh truth that we were already aware of but were loath to accept: Abigail would not be like other children. She had regressed 2 months of her 6-


month life, and she was deaf. She could not hold her head up or smile or show expressions for months afterwards, and neither could we. It was perhaps the most trying experience of our young lives. As I look back at that time, it seems surreal as though it happened in a different life and in a different world.

How did you become involved with the deaf community?

My wife and I rejected the word 'deaf' and strove to have Abigail grow up and be 'normal' in every way. We were sucked in by each and every hearing aid salesman and audiologist and therapist we found. We shifted cities three times looking for better and better interventions to make Abi 'normal'. At the end of our tether and succumbing to depression after 3 years of trying to find 'normalcy' and unsuccessfully trying to get Abi to talk and be 'normal', we were ready for the change that we needed to make.

A couple who had a deaf son were working with deaf youth in Delhi, and as a trained youth counselor I decided to go take a look. Walking into their home, I saw about 8 motorbikes in the yard with helmets stuck on them; the coat hangers in the hallway had leather jackets and denim jackets hanging there; and in their living room there were about 15 deaf youth of both sexes busily chatting away in sign language. This was a revelation, and the word 'normal' came back to me in spades. What I saw was normal. I realised my whole idea of 'normal' needed a revamp. Looking around in that house, I felt that my daughter too could be fine and normal.

Where did you learn sign language? Was it easy to learn? Do you know other sign languages?

Learning ISL, posed a problem. Nobody seemed to know of a book of ISL that would help us teach our daughter the language. We fell into the common trap of importing sign language from abroad and learned American Signed English from a dictionary and started off our daughter on Manual English. It worked well enough for us, and initially it seemed to be the best way for her to go through school. I myself was involved with the deaf community at a different level and started learning ISL through immersion in the language. It took a little while for me to get the hang of it, but eventually I made the grade.

What do you think are some of the major issues faced by the deaf community in India?

The status of ISL is the real issue in India. As the language is recognized and as the status of the language is raised, then the deaf community will gain in stature and in dignity. Interpreting as a profession will be acknowledged, and the status of interpreters will be raised. This is the key to the development of the deaf community in India. The Indian National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is advocating for this, and I am sure that in time they will achieve what they have set out to achieve, and the deaf in India will be able to enjoy equal rights to education and employment.

Tell us about some of the projects that you are involved with.

Over the years I have pioneered a number of projects as head of the Deaf Way, of the NAD and of the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI). However there is the one major project that I am involved in very closely at the current juncture. This is about the setting up of the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Institute. The NAD advocated for the institute to be included in the 11th 5-year Plan of the Government of India. The implementation of it is still in the hands of the government, and I have been closely involved with the proposal process.

What kind of projects should receive priority within the deaf community and what is your dream for the community?

The promotion of interpreters is currently the focus of my work, and I believe that raising awareness of the profession as well as lobbying for the post of 'interpreter' in the government service is going to be the most important thing to do. The idea would be to promote ISL as a language, get recognition of some sort, and then claim interpreting to be a legitimate occupation and as such to be included in the job list.

My dream for the deaf community is too large to express in a few words. India has 10 million deaf sign users. This is an unprecedented figure and the interventions for rehabilitation, education, access, and employment


are simply not available in any scale. Few pockets of growth with huge gaps in between characterises the situation. My dream would be that deaf people in India are accepted by society as a linguistic minority and not as an oddity; have a benevolent education system providing for the needs of the deaf; have a system which provides for access through captioning, video interpreting and interpreters; and are truly able to participate in the country's progress as equals.

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