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Schooling for a normal life

Bala Vidyalaya, Saraswathi Narayanaswamy's school not only teaches hearing impaired children to speak, read and write, but also prepares them to join a regular school.

LISTEN, that's why I always say listen, says the teacher to her four little students. Every school teacher in the history of teaching has probably had to exhort students to listen but at Bala Vidyalaya the words take on greater significance.

Bala Vidyalaya is a school for young deaf children that teaches them to speak, read, write and listen so that they can be integrated into regular schools when they turn five. "If hearing-impaired children are trained properly in pre-primary school, they can attend regular school and lead normal lives," says Saraswathi Narayanaswamy, the founder-principal of the school.

Bala Vidyalaya was started in 1969 as an experimental school with five children and two teachers to find out if deaf children could be integrated into regular schools. The school now has about 175 students and 30 teachers. The student-teacher ratio is 1:4 and parents are also an integral part of the training programme.

"Most parents bringing their children to Bala Vidyalaya have just come from the doctors. They're in a state of rejection — of the child and of the impairment. So we do a lot of counselling but when they see the other kids and mothers, that builds confidence," says Mrs. Saraswathi.

She adds that the awareness about hearing impairment is low. "Very few seem to realise that if a child cannot hear, it will not speak. And most of the time, the parents have a problem with the impairment, not the child." She says that the earlier a child comes in, the better are its chances of complete integration. "By the age of three, every child learns a language, deaf children lose out on that. No child is completely deaf at birth. There is always some residual hearing and so the younger the child is, the better."

A child admitted at two-and-a-half gets to spend two or three years in Bala Vidyalaya and learns reading, writing and listening skills. Usually the teacher reads aloud and then asks the children to identify the sentence or word, or carry out the action that the sentence pronounces. "Once the child enters a regular school, it will have to rely on its ability to read rather than listen, so, reading comprehension is given importance," explains Mrs. Saraswathi. The school has formulated its own syllabus, drawing from the Montessori and Kindergarten systems. Lessons are taught in English or Tamil, depending upon the fluency levels of the parents.

"We rely heavily on their participation," she says. The mother has to read to and make the child read at home. In some lessons, the parent has to write a short summary of an incident that happened at home — maybe as simple as spilling a plate of food — and the day's lesson is woven around the incident.

For kids, who have crossed the two-and-a-half year age limit, there is an outreach programme, where the mother and child come in once a week to work with a teacher. And with the mother training the child at home the rest of the week, it can join a regular school even if it missed out the initial training.

This April at least 30 students are joining regular schools. Mrs. Saraswathi explains that regular schools and teachers just need to be a little sensitive to the needs of these kids, like letting the child sit in the front row.

Bala Vidyalaya also runs an institute for teacher's training. The training centre was initially started to provide teachers to their own school due to a lack of trained professionals, but now trained teachers who can go out and get jobs are working with hearing impaired children.

At present, the school is a part of a campaign for rubella vaccination. "If all mothers are vaccinated before birth, the number of deaf children will reduce by 35 to 40 per cent," she says.

Bala Vidyalaya is also working on DHVANI (Development of Hearing, Voice and Natural Integration) cards that will put their special syllabus on the Net in different languages.

"The cards give elaborate instructions that will help parents develop language and speech skills in young deaf children," says she. Saraswathi Narayanaswamy received the President's Award for Best Individual in December 2002. She says she sees the award as an acceptance of the philosophy that the hearing impaired can be integrated into society.

More schools like Bala Vidyalaya are needed all over the world, she says. "The government is spending huge amounts on special schools and vocational education. Instead, if more such pre-primary schools were started, the children can join regular schools. Many of our alumni are engineers, accountants, software professionals and architects."

Bala Vidyalaya also conducts a teacher-training programme. The school is located at 18, First Cross, Shastri Nagar, Adyar. Ph: 24917199.

The school also insists that the children wear body-harness hearing aids because they are more cost effective but "more importantly, we don't want the kids to think that being deaf is something to be ashamed of."


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