CHENNAI: One of the first questions a student is asked while joining a school is, ‘What is your mother tongue?’ But for about 200 children at the CSI Higher Secondary School, Santhome, they have an identical mother tongue — the sign language.
“These students have never known what it feels like to be called by someone. The only thing they are familiar with is hand gestures, and we are now teaching them lip reading,” says James Albert, headmaster of the 104-year-old school.
In 1912, when hearing disabilities were considered a disease, a philanthropist of the Zenana Missionary Society from Church of England started a school for seven students who were shunned by their families and society because they had hearing and speech disabilities.
Over the last 104 years, the school began to change the lives of several children with hearing and speech disabilities. The school was rechristened CSI Higher Secondary School in 1947, the first school in Chennai, the second in Tamil Nadu and fourth in India to cater to children with hearing disabilities.
The school faced challenges in terms of financial constraints and insufficient classrooms, but the focus on educating children with hearing disabilities never shifted. “We first focus on transforming students; most of them are from the village and have an inferiority complex. Sign language is new to them. The teachers here are first counselled and only then do they train students,” says James.
The school now has about 200 students and each child has to be handled in a special way.
“Otherwise they develop a complex. For instance, when a family has a child with hearing disabilities and a ‘normal’ child, the mother generally interacts more with the latter simply because they can speak to each other. The child with a hearing problem is not ignored but interactions are less,” he points out.
James adds that another challenge that though people with speech and hearing disabilities are talented, companies are hesitant to employ them because not everybody can communicate in sign language.
“Though hundreds of students from this government-aided school managed to make sign language their mother tongue and pick up skills to lead an independent life, around 400 children are still waiting for a platform to prove their abilities,” he says.
For Barathy Jebarani, finding a home after she was abandoned by her family in a train 20 years ago was not a big challenge compared to what she is facing now. Despite being good at tailoring, she is struggling to find a source of income.
Born with hearing and speech disabilities, Barathy was abandoned when she was just a year old. She was rescued by locals near Perambur and handed to a children’s home in Kolathur. She later joined the school for children with disabilities and completed Class 10, besides getting trained in tailoring. But her dreams of standing on her own feet remain unfulfilled.
Barathy is one among the 400 children at the school who have completed their training in tailoring, carpentry, confectionery and computers skills, but are still waiting for an opportunity to prove their mettle.