– Andrew W. Lyngdoh, Correspondent The Telegraph (Shillong), writes for VAANI, Deaf Children’s Foundation.
“The problem is not that the (deaf) students do not hear. The problem is that the hearing world does not listen.”
Shillong, April 11: This quotation from Jesse L. Jackson, American civil rights activist and Baptist minister, could well apply to the plight of hearing-impaired children in Meghalaya.
To establish their rights, it is imperative to launch awareness on the “invisible disability” and take professional help.
This was highlighted by a Calcutta-based deaf children’s foundation, Vaani, in its findings on such children in this hill state.
According to the state directorate of census operations (2004), 28,803 people (or 1.2 per cent of the state’s population) suffer from disabilities. Of these, 12.7 per cent are hearing impaired, 11.9 per cent speech impaired, 46.5 per cent visually impaired, 17.8 per cent physically handicapped and 11.1 per cent mentally handicapped.
The number of disabled persons was found to be much higher in rural areas (22,740) than in urban areas (6,063). However, there is no accurate statistics on hearing-impaired children in the state, the foundation said.
In Massar village in Ri Bhoi district, about 50km from here, there is a community of 250 people, 90 of whom, including 42 children, were found to suffer from hearing impairment. The foundation said one woman from the village married a man from another community and lives in another village. They have eight children, all of whom are deaf.
Sister Merly Tom, the director of Ferrando Speech and Hearing Centre near Umiam (Barapani), said, “The case appears to be a genetic problem. It is believed that the community’s women are the carriers of the genetic disorder.”
Quoting the Sarva Shiksha Abhijan state coordinator, the foundation said 7,496 children with disabilities were enrolled in government and government-aided schools. Of these, 446 children suffer from hearing impairment. But there are only 42 professionals to deal with the differently abled people in the state.
There are three schools for deaf children in the state — School and Centre for the Hearing Impaired Children, Shillong, Ferrando Speech and Hearing Centre, Umniuh Khwan, Ri Bhoi, and Montford Centre of Education, Danak-gre, Tura, West Garo Hills.
“There is very little understanding among parents and society of the link between loss of hearing and lack of speech among children,” a member of the foundation said. “When children do not start the usual baby talk from 12-16 months, some parents of male children believe that boys generally start talking late. So they wait and watch. They also tend to think the child has a speech problem.”
None of the parents covered by survey were aware of the rights of children with any form of disability or the recent developments in India and in the world to provide a framework for children with hearing impairment to have access to education.
Vaani found that in Shillong and Tura very few parents had received training in sign language. The Ferrando Centre, trains parents in sign language, which can go a long way in strengthening the bonds between children and parents.
The state department of social welfare offers scholarships to differently abled students to pursue education. Under the Disability Act, the government offers book grants, uniforms and conveyance to students while some hearing impaired students are also provided with hearing aids.
The education department runs 3,621 schools, 2,101 primary and 1,521 upper primary, under the Sarva Shiksha Abhijan. Of these, 1,303 have enrolled children who are differently abled.
The health department is required to provide medical support to children suffering from hearing impairment. However, the state government has been accused of being lackadaisical in this.
“Our institution has not received any kind of support from the government since its inception. We are only supported by the Union ministry of social justice and empowerment,” a teacher of a school for the hearing impaired said.
Most of the deaf children were found to come from poor families. On the brighter side, the teacher said, the teacher-parent relationship was encouraging where parents attended classroom sessions to pick up sign languages.
The commissioner and secretary of information and public relations department, P. Shakil Ahammed said trained local personnel to teach the differently-abled children was the need of the hour. He said according to the rules of the Right to Education Act, a disability coordinator would be appointed in each of the 39 blocks in the state but it would be difficult to find trained local professionals as disability coordinators.
Vaani director Brinda Crishna said “Hope begins at home”. The organisation says there is hope for hearing impaired children in Meghalaya despite the odds but awareness and support to them should not be muted as the impact could be deafening.