US

Sign, engage, include

US
By Shermeen Zuberi
Fri, 11, 18

You want a different vision of life? Learn a different language. This time Us tried to.....

COVER STORY

You want a different vision of life? Learn a different language. This time Us tried to, in the words of Willard Madsen, “hear a hand”. We went to JS Academy for the Deaf. From a humble beginning of four children and five teachers 14 years ago, the school has worked steadily to give differently abled children the best of environment, the best of everything that they are deprived of otherwise.

A non-profit organisation

No admission fee is charged from students, and the transport is heavily subsidised. Teachers arrange fund-raising whenever possible to pay for course materials (art supplies, for instance, are very expensive and are paid for by the school), winter uniforms, etc.

Inclusive policy

First, no child is denied admission at JS Academy, and for that purpose interviews and assessments are done all year round.

Second, they have an afternoon education programme (Mon-Thurs), too. A child who had left schooling for some reason or another is taken in. It doesn’t matter if the child is overage. When they begin to show progress, they are transferred to the morning programme. Till date, over five batches have completed matriculation and some of them will now be sitting for BA examinations.

Third, deaf adults (who are all graduates and competent) are given the opportunity to teach independently at the school. The teachers work with them, show them how to conduct classes.

Succeeding despite obstacles

Special education has always been the least priority for our government. Laila Dossa, Chairperson Noor-e-Ali Trust JS Academy for the Deaf, along with Shahla, Principal, interpreter and teacher, felt the need for their own school, seeing that the differently abled were not being taught the way they should be. There were schools, yes, but they were failing to tap into the intellect of these children. From getting the place rid of an encroachment to creating a safe and friendly environment to seeing students graduate wasn’t an easy task.

Another concern for the school management is to find jobs for them after graduation. The admin doesn’t let go of any opportunity that comes their way. Recently, a team went to Quetta to train teachers who did not know how to communicate with deaf students and had approached JS Academy for help. But the sessions lasted five days only, the best they could do was to create an impact, share ideas, and emphasise on imparting education through sign language.

Given the 24-hour job description

With the differently abled, teaching is hard work – not just preparing material and planning lessons, but also because you have to be available for your students round the clock. Here’s a staff of 24 brilliant teachers of Special Education (of whom nine are deaf teachers) going the extra mile to provide out of the box learning opportunities to their students. Students enjoy story time, nursery rhymes, puppetry, dance and drama; celebrate international events, like Earth Day, Mother’s Day, Day of Persons with Disabilities. Physical education is also part of the curriculum.

To get the concepts clear

Teachers at JS Academy are given a freehand to bring any materials they want. The children are very observant, and obviously they understand and retain better when provided with visual aids. Besides that, there are separate science labs for junior and senior students. They are also provided with computers in classes to enhance the learning experience.

The Academy follows Sindh Board’s curriculum and, with the consensus of other schools for the deaf, modify it for the differently-abled. Also, there are some commonalities between Pakistani Sign Language and American Sign Language, which is a universal language, so our people can travel and communicate easily.

The education methodology is three-fold: speak, write, gesture. The teacher will first speak, then use hand gestures, then write it on board. Every word has a sign; every gesture and every word written on board, hence, has to be precise – the position of hand, the direction of arrows, etc. It is an on-going process, deliberating and agreeing on an appropriate sign. It’s not a one-man show here. There has to be a consensus between schools in Karachi and nationwide on what signs should be standardised. Sign language is a complete language; it has its own rules like other languages. Unfortunately, it’s not recognised in Pakistan as one of the languages. Take any newspaper, attend any seminar and you’ll notice this prejudice even though deaf are in large numbers and if you point it out the organisers would promise inclusivity “next time”. So, it’s not just the evolution; there are words that do not even exist in Pakistani Sign Language because no work has been done in this country as far as deaf education is concerned.

Encouraging sign language research

The Academy has a full-fledged Sign Language Research department comprising hearing and deaf experts who have produced many new learning tools for the benefit of deaf community of Pakistan. These books have been shared with other deaf institutes in Pakistan. Currently, they are concentrating on developing Pakistan’s first comprehensive dictionary in Islamiat Signs, which will have both Urdu and English vocabulary in sign language.

The sign language research group is also working on developing new story books, English verbs, and general knowledge books. They are working on a CD of nursery rhymes for kindergarten, too.

D is for dexterous

Students of JS Academy will make you think positively about the community. They impressed people from NAPA (National Academy of Performing Arts) with their acting skills and even went onto win the first prize in one of their drama competitions. They’ve participated confidently in debate competitions organised by Rotaract club for deaf people; they were able to come up with strong arguments for serious topics. Their “disability” did not stop them from modeling for Amir Adnan’s show at Pakistan Fashion Week.

It’s wrong to isolate them at workspaces just because they can’t hear. They are computer literate and professional enough to work in important and challenging positions. At least, they should be given a chance to earn an honest living and improve their quality of life. They are taught the dignity of labour, that all jobs should be respected equally, and no occupation is superior or inferior. Even though they are sent to workshops for learning technical skills, the teachers encourage the students to choose the career they love. For instance, stitching and embroidery are skills that are not considered valuable these days so the subject is kept optional.

Success stories

Rafia

A school for “normal” children had expelled her. She was sitting at home with nothing to do when her sister, who was already studying at JS Academy, encouraged her to join and study instead of wasting her time. She is one of the brilliant students here.

Hassan

Joined as a student, and now a sports teacher at JS Academy, Hassan is more than that; he’s the caring friend everyone needs. His brothers also teach the Matric class in the afternoon shift.

Arif

The art teacher at JS Academy, Mr Arif is responsible for the illustrations in books, including sign language for their published story books. He further assists the research team in the development of the language.

JS Academy is no less than a community space for the differently-abled students where they can spend quality time with their friends and teachers. Evenings, Sundays, iftar during Ramazan; the Academy is home away from home for them.

To make it all-inclusive, they schedule a counselling session for parents and outsiders to attend every Thursday. From basic communication to answering FAQs, the class is useful for everybody!

If you are moved by this story, please consider making a donation. The administration appreciates every effort made in this regard. They insist you visit the academy first. Go and see how everything’s maintained, their teaching standards, and when you’re satisfied with it then only choose to be a part of this mission. For Rs 5000, you can sponsor a child’s education for a month.

Same goes for volunteering. If you feel like you are up to it, then go ahead. Most of the volunteers they have had didn’t take the job seriously. At the moment, there are two volunteers who teach knitting. This, too, could be an inspiration for anyone who has a skill to impart and wishes to give back to the society.

A stanza from the national anthem in sign language