There are around 20 lakh deaf children in India. Out of them, only 12 lakh attend basic schooling and the rest eight lakh children are either drop-outs or cannot access education.
And this data doesn’t take into account the number of times disabilities are simply not reported or don’t get a place in the census.
Experts say that education in India is mostly oral — this means that children and older students who are hearing impaired cannot benefit from the lessons imparted in class irrespective of how well the Right to Education Act is implemented.
Even though hearing loss is a deficiency which can be solved by a better penetration of sign language across educational institutes and workplaces, we barely pay attention to it.
As a result, a large number of students end up pushing themselves till class 10, after which they let go of their dreams of higher studies. Why?
Because India doesn’t have a single college that imparts higher education in sign language.
So, if you are hard of hearing or cannot hear at all, the lack of resources to educate yourself is so less in the country, you will need to let go of any hopes of studying a mainstream subject and instead learn traditional vocational subjects like book binding, saree bordering, laddu making, milk and dairy products etc. with one vernacular language.
Aman Sharma and Deepesh Nair first noticed this problem when they were volunteering at a few schools in Mumbai. How could India’s financial capital lack the infrastructure to support the education of deaf children? The duo left their jobs at multinational companies to further look into the matter.
“Hearing impairment is also termed as language impairment. To learn anything in the world, it is important to know a language and to learn a language it is important to hear and speak,” explains Deepesh Nair in a conversation with India Today Education.
“Since the child with deafness cannot hear, he/she is unable to develop a language and hence it becomes difficult for them to learn,” he adds.
In July 2016, Sharma and Nair started TEACH — Training and Education Centre for Hearing Impaired — to ensure that deaf children didn’t need to give up on their dreams or a good education because of hearing loss.
Low penetration of sign language
“In India, for 20 Lakhs deaf children, there are only 250-300 interpreters available — that’s the official count we are aware,” says Nair. “There is a need of training and developing resources and sensitising the hearing community towards the social issues prevailing in the non-hearing community.”
Even though the Indian Sign Language is very much present, there is an extremely low penetration of the same even in the urban population. Since this important facet of providing education is barely talked about, it is a very low thrust area in our country.
“Most schools don’t encourage teaching in sign language and instead teach students orally. This makes the students grasp what they understand through lip reading,” says Nair.
“Sign Language is their own language and deaf students with 100 per cent hearing problem would always communicate in signs. Lack of acceptance of sign language is a problem,” he adds.
ISL is being taken up a tad too slowly, though many organizations are finally starting to spread sign language as the only means of education for deaf children.
Children usually don’t report hearing problems for fear of being marked as ‘abnormal’
The main support deaf or hearing impaired children get comes from parents and teachers but a mass mindset change is required in India before these children can become part of the conventional education system.
Because of the problematic mindset in India regarding deafness, children would most likely never tell their peers or teachers to repeat themselves or to use a microphone which can actually solve the issue.
In most cases, children with hearing impairment or complete hearing loss keep away from other students in ordinary classrooms to avoid standing out.
Suppressing their problems so that they are not thought of as “abnormal” creates even bigger issues — the kids do not learn how to communicate and don’t really understand much of what is taught in class. As they grow older, the problem increases.
“An inferior complexity arises in a child when he/she compares self with non-hearing. This inferiority complex creates hatred and a biased outlook towards the society in a child,” Nair explains.
They end up spending a lot of energy just trying to understand what the teacher is saying and trying to keep up with their peers in taking notes. Moreover, they also end up tired and suffer from headaches by the time school is over for the day.
However, all these problems barely get noticed by teachers who believe the children with hearing impairment have problems with concentration or are simply not paying attention in class.
Ultimately, the primary issue that plagues deaf children is that they are mostly unable to get a job as they were never taught employable skills!
Special schools only teach vocational skills
In special schools, the problem is different as a deaf child is not exposed to the regular system of education.
“The system in special schools is unfortunately very traditional — they are focused on traditional vocation courses rather than mainstream. Also, there is an age difference between a non-hearing and hearing due to the late intervention of disability,” the co-founder of TEACH explains.
The absence of mainstream subjects like maths and English makes it difficult for students to study higher education.
Yet another issue deaf children face is the way they are consistently underestimated which is a big blow to their motivation.
“Most students are not encouraged to take mainstream higher education instead are asked to take up any vocational jobs training and get a job. This is because some schools and social workers believe these students won’t be able to do higher education because they lack language and numerical skills,” says Nair.
TEACH works with the students through role modelling and exposures which boosts their thought process building.
This way, a healthy competition and reality are presented towards these children, which reduces these complexities and make them competitive towards higher education.
Top challenge for deaf and hearing-impaired students: Learning English
Grasping a language is a big problem for children who are deaf or hearing impaired because to learn a language, you need to speak the language.
“This is the reason why most schools choose one language which is mostly their mother tongue. This is a big challenge as most higher education or modern vocational courses are in English,” says Nair.
To overcome this issue, there is a need for a special technique and TEACH has an extensive programme designed for schools.
TEACH is working with Mulund Rotary School for the Deaf where school transformation is undertaken. Focusing on simple changes in school is the start for students to get acclimatised to the language.
English should be introduced early — around the third grade, says Nair. This way, students can gradually progress from alphabets to words and paragraphs as they climb grades.
He provides us with a great example on how to help hearing-impaired students understand a different language —
Eg. Adding synonyms in English to the signboard which is Marathi can help students grasp the new language — like adding the words ‘Water’ or ‘Office’ to the Marathi signboard can help students understand what the English word is for the signboards they see every day in school.
Nair says that the main thing that needs to change is the mindset of teachers and schools — they need to accept English before they can teach the kids.
“Before motivating the students, schools need to start believing in themselves and the need of mainstream education needs to be accepted. Mulund Rotary School for Deaf is an example of accepting this change,” he says.
There are few other schools as well who have started realising this need but yet lots need to be done at ground level. Changing attitude of parents, teachers and students are signs of positive work over the years, Nair adds.
How TEACH is transforming education for the deaf
TEACH trains students for three years after they finish class 10. In the first year of operation, TEACH had 20 students, which grew to 40 in the second.
“In Mumbai, no institute had ever come up with a plan to work towards graduation for the deaf,” says Nair.
English and Mathematics — the two primary issues even with regular students — are the primary focus areas for hearing impaired and deaf students in the first year of their training with TEACH. After that, course work for classes 11 and 12 are taken up.
“The English content has been designed based on the need analysis done for these children and the rest of the commerce content is simplified for better understanding,” Nair adds.
TEACH focuses on the assessment of the programme and the student rather than on the content — there’s a mix of daily/weekly/periodical assessment of students to understand the learning and progress of a student.
Moreover, soft skills which are so important for the job market now such as self-confidence and personality development are also taught.
“With all educational resources in place, TEACH also works on soft-skills and functional skill (computer training) for these children, enabling them to be employable post graduation,” he says.
TEACH now targets to open a college in 2019 which will provide higher education to deaf and hearing impaired children in sign language.
Eighteen students are expected to be a part of this plan, says the co-founder of TEACH.