Even the Deaf Have a Voice
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Imagine yourself in a foreign country where no one speaks any language you know. No matter how hard you try, no one is able to clearly communicate with you, and you are alone, with no one to help you. Imagine you couldn’t enjoy a musical concert, the hum of an engine, or hear the voice of the people you love.
This might seem like a nightmare to you, but is a reality for hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans and many millions more around the world. Yes, today we are talking about the silent voices, the people who either by genetics or other circumstances, have lost their hearing. With no ability to listen and mimic the sounds made by others, such individuals struggle to learn how to speak effectively. However, that doesn’t mean that those impaired of hearing are cognitively incapable.
These are people of sound mind and have the ability to act and think for themselves. It’s just that often they are impatient and frustrated because no one is able to easily grasp what they are trying to communicate. Sign language is proof that those who cannot hear nor speak are fully capable individuals. It is a language of its own, with a structure distinct of itself. On 23 September, we celebrated the International Day of Sign Languages, because each country has its own sign language, even Sri Lanka.
International Day of Sign Language
This day is a great opportunity to bring awareness to the special needs of those who use sign language to communicate, and celebrate the unique linguistic identity and cultural diversity of the deaf and other sign language users. This year, the theme declared by the World Federation of the Deaf is, ‘We Sign for Human Rights,’ highlighting the fact, that even the deaf have a voice, and that sign language deserves to be recognised more by people, and treated equal in status with other spoken languages. This is especially important in Sri Lanka, where the sign language using community is often stigmatised, discriminated against and suffers from a severe lack in opportunities for better quality in life.
The Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind
Operating under the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind (CSDB), these schools are governed by the Diocese of Colombo, managed by a board of trustees where the Bishop of Colombo is the Chairperson. Additionally, the Ratmalana School for the Blind is also under the CSDB and provides formal education for those impaired of sight or hearing until their G.C.E Ordinary Level Examinations, as well as vocational training for its students completely free of charge.
To better understand the circumstances of Sri Lanka’s sign language using community, Ceylon Today reached out to P r i n c i p a l o f t h e Ratmalana School for the Deaf, Rozana Pulendra and Principal of the Nuffield School for the Deaf and Blind at Kaithady in Jaffna, Vasuki Rajasingham.
Life as a student
Both schools accept students throughout Sri Lanka, with many hailing from rural regions of the country. Both the Ratmalana School and Nuffield provide residential facilities for students to board, with all facilities and meals provided free of charge. Both schools rely on donations from well-wishers to maintain the cost of daily operations. “Life as a student in these schools comprises exactly what you would expect from a regular school,” said Principal Rajasingham, who shed light on student life at these institutions.
“The only difference is that the older students undergo vocational training a few hours after school.” Otherwise, the students follow a structured timetable that allows them ample time for play as well as study before it’s time for lights out. But of course, anyone who experienced life in a dormitory would know that lights-out isn’t the end of the day’s activities.
“The students are left to their own devices after that, and they usually chit-chat for a while,” she continued. “The only thing is they can’t communicate without the lights on – because you couldn’t sign otherwise – and they would often get caught,” Rajasingham added, with a chuckle. Both schools provide a variety of vocational training for the students, while also encouraging them to engage in creative activities. Some of the training provided includes professions such as carpentry, baking as well as sewing, with both schools providing opportunities for students to graduate with National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ).
Life after school
For those who complete their formal education with an NVQ qualification in hand, a number of vocations are open for them to engage in and become productive individuals who contribute to Sri Lanka’s economy. “I guarantee to any employer that they would not have a more focused employee than one who is deaf,” opined Principal Pulendra. “They are all hard-working, dedicated and won’t be as distracted.” In fact, many organisations such as Pizza Hut, hire graduates from these schools to employ them in their bakeries.
“Usually, our students that graduate do very well,” shared Principal Rajasingham when asked of the success stories of any alumni. “Many become talented tailors. We have one such person who has a thriving tailoring business in the heart of Jaffna, enough so that they cannot maintain supply for the demand of orders they receive.” Not only that, some students have also found opportunities to work in careers overseas, in their respective vocations.
Challenges in education
As successful as many of the students who graduate become, we couldn’t help but notice the fact that the school offered no opportunities to pursue education in completing the G.C.E. Advanced Level examination, as well as other lucrative careers that students may engage in such as IT. “Even though we do not have the facilities to provide students the opportunity to pursue completion of their A Levels, we always encourage the students to do so,” replied Principal Pulendra when asked. “We are also trying to encourage students to pursue qualifications in graphic designing as well, but very few do.” “These children come from families that are often daily-wage earners and other low-income families,” Principal Rajasingham explained further.
She pointed out that in such circumstances, every able family member is encouraged to work once legally able to do so, and hence, do not have the opportunity to pursue an education, even if wishing to do so. Additionally, such students will have to seek that education in another school or with institutions dedicated for students who communicate in sign language. The students simply lack the opportunity to do so, leaving them without any concrete solution to break the cycle of poverty in their families.
The language barrier
Language is another major reason why students rarely ever pursue an education beyond their G.C.E. Ordinary Levels. “You have to remember that these students often start learning at a later age,” shared Principal Pulendra. “Sometimes, we have students attending Grade One at around nine years of age, and it takes time for them to learn the language and grasp how to communicate. “You also have to remember that for these children, Sinhala and Tamil are their second language, a completely foreign language for them,” she continued.
“Sign language has a completely different language of its own, with no linguistic ties to our mother tongues, which mean students struggle to grasp how to use Sinhala and Tamil, which they have to pass to be considered as having passed their Ordinary Levels.” Our conversation with Principal Rajasingham added more light to their struggle. “Another major problem is that we don’t have the proper signs for many of the concepts taught in school,” she said.
“Without proper signs, the students and the teachers struggle to grasp and explain the highly technical terms explained in almost all the subjects, especially science and mathematics, and of course, the children struggle because of that in academics.” Needless to say, even those who have the drive to pursue academics, have an uphill struggle ahead of them, relying on an educational system that more-or-less ignores their very existence, providing little-or-no support for them. This is a shame, because as both principals explain, being impaired of hearing does not mean that they have any limitation in their cognitive ability.
There may be a number of future designers, IT professionals, and social workers among these numbers who are pushed to do hard labour for a measly daily wage. Ceylon Today inquired if there were any ongoing projects by the Government to further expand Sri Lankan sign language to facilitate learning for the deaf, to which the answer was no.
Not only do the deaf have to deal with such challenges while obtaining an education, but also with the existing social discrimination which they face in even the simplest of circumstances. “I don’t know if there is a law or not, but often, banks straight-out do not allow deaf individuals to open even a savings account to their name without a joint account holder who has the ability to speak,” Principal Pulendra explained. Then there is of course, the reluctance of employers to hire people who have hearing impairments, the social stigma and the lack of proper infrastructure and Government programmes that aid those with hearing problems.
The social element
All of these have led to the deaf community becoming an isolated group in Sri Lankan society, often having no ability to speak for themselves, because when they do try to communicate, no one understands, or takes the effort to. Sometimes this can often happen within their own family. “The deaf community is a very tightknit one,” Principal Rajasingham said. “And you would often see that children who are deaf would often have a parent or close relative who is also deaf.”
However, the situation changes when different circumstances lead to a child’s hearing impairment, and the parents have no knowledge in how to use sign language. “We provide classes for parents who are interested in learning sign language, but often they simply have no time to commit to these classes because they need to work to support their families.” Both principals agreed that being able to socialise and interact with other deaf students is an immense benefit for those who attend schools for the deaf, and something that is extremely important for their development and childhood.
“We’ve had to send our students back to their homes because of the ongoing pandemic,” shared Principal Pulendra. “We simply couldn’t risk an outbreak among the students.” She explained that the School for the Blind in Ratmalana had a few positive cases of the Coronavirus, and needed to hospitalise some of the students while quarantining the others. “But we didn’t want to hospitalise these children unsupervised. Being blind, if left alone they would be at risk of being taken advantage of.”
However, none of the hospitals they approached were willing to accommodate the infected students because of their special needs, and it was with much struggle that they were able to find one that was willing to accept them; a private hospital. Of course, being at home, the students are now deprived of that social interaction they very much need. The schools have had to become creative in order to conduct instruction and keep the students occupied.
Innovative distance learning
This has been done through sending assignment packets to the students via mail, and through the usual WhatsApp, Zoom, and other applications that have become a staple in online learning already. Students whose families did not own a smartphone of any kind, were provided with one through the patronage of kind donors.
The students of both schools were also encouraged to engage in artistic activities, to draw various designs, patterns and then share them among their peers to colour in. The Nuffield School has even created their own YouTube channel, where teachers post their lessons for the students to learn at their own pace.
How to help
Being an institute operating primarily on the donations of patrons, the best way to help these institutes continue to help their students, is to donate funds. “All donations are strictly monitored. We hold ourselves accountable for the funds we receive to help the students,” Principal Rajasingham shared. Donors can donate for the development and operation of the school, as well as for a separate fund used to provide meals for all resident students, which exists solely for that purpose and is not used for any other purpose.
Also, both Principals shared the importance of providing equal treatment to the deaf, considering them as fully functioning individuals who have something to contribute to society. Sri Lanka is a long way from reaching that goal, both in policy and society, and until then, these voices remain unheard, not because we are deaf, but because we do not take the time to understand.