CHENNAI: Two children are sitting at a table in the old classroom of their school building with an abacus between them. They can neither see or hear each other clearly but the older one, Arihant, is mentoring the younger girl who is 13.
Behind them groups of children are making collages of Pongal pots using cotton and pista shells and peeling onions. The children do not talk to each other much; this is not outstanding discipline but because many of them are not aware of each other’s presence.
But they are all showing improvement. Nine-year-old Oviya can now speak around 50 words, says her teacher Jayanthi Narayanan with pride.
The eight deaf and blind students at Clarks School for the Deaf in Mylapore are given painstaking attention by their teachers, but the only way they can communicate is by tactile sign language, braille, and lipreading for those with partial vision.
With no voice or vision, the children use objects like chains to identify each other while the days of the week are indentified by objects like ribbons and handkerchiefs. The kids use objects to communicate little tasks like picking up a small mug to indicate bathroom needs, and gesticulating with a tennis ball if they have finished their play or a spoon if they want to eat.
Many children born with auditory defects tend to develop visual defects, says Dipti Karnad, who has been working with deaf and blind children for several decades and coordinates the school teacher training diploma programme for those who want to help educate these children.
Many of these children grow up in isolation and are cut off from the world. The first thing we help them with when they come to us is communication, says Dr Leelavathi, the school Director. Parents’ needs are given priority and the school adapts to the children accordingly. Parents don’t send these children here just to learn their ABCs as they want their children to be able to communicate basic needs like hunger, toilet requirements and pain, said Karnad. An early diagnosis is beneficial as some children brought to the school late faced difficulty. Some children who are in the school and under constant observation do quite well. Arihant is an example of this.
The focus here is not so much on mainstream academics, and the school does theme-based activities -- the current theme of learning in the school is Pongal.
“We will take them shopping when they will have to hold cards to indicate what they want to buy, they will cook food for the festival with us and will now know what sugarcane is!” said Narayanan.
Those who have developed academic skills are trained to enter mainstream education. Three of the students, Arihant, Shazia and Shilpa, will be taking the National Institute of Open Schooling exam when they are ready.
Requirements, both in terms of facilities and trained teachers, are a challenge. For instance, tactile scribes will be needed by these students if and when they sit for any exam. Teachers who are trained to work with these students are in demand as not many choose this form of teaching, said Narayanan. Many of these children are from economically weaker sections and not all pay fees, so the school runs on the dedication of the teachers and of the director whom all the children call Amma. It is a challenge for the students, but even the smallest progress is a moment of pride for us, said the teachers.