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Empowering the hearing impaired

Oct 11, 2012

Noida Deaf Society (NDS) in India is educating and empowering the hearing impaired since 2005. NDS has also developed India's first visual vocational training course for the deaf that uses a combination of words, video and pictures to help students learn.

Understanding how deaf learn

Delhi: When Ruma Roka set up the Noida Deaf Society (NDS) in 2005 she knew that educating and empowering the hearing impaired to find worthwhile employment was a top priority. But she also wanted to draw attention to the issue of educating the deaf in India.

"Teaching the deaf here means making them capable of speech. The deaf can't hear and so even if their voice boxes work perfectly they can't produce proper speech. They have very limited vocabularies to start with. Yet, year after year, they are expected to sit in classes that teach them as if they can hear. They are then expected to regurgitate answers learnt by heart during exams. What purpose does this serve?" she questions.

While researching for education options for this special group, Roka realised that sign language was not encouraged and that it was the quality of resources that kept this category of disabled people in menial jobs without any prospect of developing their inherent talents. "In India, 63 million deaf people miss out on crucial skills because of a lack of resources. The approximately 500 government-aided schools we have in the country have a very oral approach and don't encourage sign language," she reveals.

Understanding the way the deaf learn is an important component of teaching at the NDS. "The deaf mind thinks differently. They learn through context," explains Roka. "There is no direct translation of subjects here into sign language. We have to create a context and translate it into sign language that will help them understand the content. They are visual learners."

So NDS developed India's first visual vocational training course for the deaf. It uses a combination of words, video and pictures to help students learn. "Remember, their whole perspective of the world is through their eyes. It's devoid of sound and that can be very limiting," elaborates Roka.

The NDS today has grown since its first classes began in a two-bedroom flat given by Roka's husband. Run on donations of philanthropic organisations, it teaches children for free. NDS has branches in Prem Nagar, Delhi, as well as Hissar, Haryana, but they are the proudest of their 500 and counting students who have been hired by leading multinational and other companies like Mphasis, Barista and the Taj group of hotels.

For Roka, keeping her students motivated is as important as training them to join the workforce. "The deaf are not blind but everyone else around them seems to be blind to their needs as human beings," she shares, adding, "Parents would say that their deaf child was like a stone around their necks. They are rarely made a part of family decisions. Girls, of course, have it the worst. Parents never stop trying to get them married off, taking huge loans and giving dowries that are well beyond their means. No thought is paid to how they will handle the pressures that come with relationships like marriage."

While presently there are not many girls enrolled, the NDS doesn't give them conventional options like embroidery or craft classes. They are treated like any other student and are taught computers and communication skills. Usha Kumari, 26, a graduate of NDS, is today a part of the Security Team of Vivanta, of the Taj group of Hotels. She learned the Indian Sign Language and communication in English and honed her computing skills at the institute. This young woman, who had no future after her secondary school education, is now a proud contributor to her family's income. Like her, Gayatri Devi, 28, another student, is now employed as part of the Housekeeping Team in the Taj Mahal Hotel in the Capital. The NDS assisted her to polish her communication skills and more importantly helped her define an identity of her own.

Seeing her economically independent had made Gayatri’s father happy. He says, "Gayatri is living a respectable life, something that I never believed she would be capable of." Roka, of course, would like to see many more parents of disabled girls show such positive change in attitude. To increase the number of girls in NDS, she is looking to mount a campaign for their enrolment.

It is never easy explaining to many who come to NDS that they are capable of more. "I started with five students," recalls Roka, "And they taught me that the deaf were cut off from mainstream jobs because they didn't know English and didn't have any computer skills." Roka is thankful that her neighbours never complained of her many students coming to attend class in the building. "But then the deaf don't make any noise," she smiles.

It takes about a year-and-half to get a student completely job ready. NDS uses visual aids to teach and instructors who are deaf themselves because they can understand the needs of their pupils best. They also hold sessions for corporates, explaining how the deaf would be great value adds to their companies. "The deaf rarely leave the companies that hire them," says Roka. "This loyalty factor is so valuable." A tie-up with NIIT helped NDS source computers as well as teachers who teach graphic designing and desktop skills. Today, their desktop courses are certified by NIIT.

Roka doesn't know why she chose this category of students, but the urge to teach children who had little access to schools was always strong. "When I wanted to learn the Indian sign language I couldn't find any information," she remembers. "People were very surprised when I went to the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute For The Hearing Handicapped to learn the Indian sign language. I had no deaf child, relative or friend. In my class of five, I was the only one who had come just to learn. There is a huge gap here that must be addressed fast." Finding teachers suited to teach her students was also tough. "Some of my students later trained to teach here," she says. They have a vibrant volunteer programme where people from many different areas come in to contribute their bit.

Roka plans to work on creating more digital-based learning material for improving English literacy and increasing computer access in the future. She asserts, "Communication and computers will help my students show the world their true strength."

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