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Footprints: Don't say it, sign it

Updated April 26, 2015

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VANYA, a student of the Deaf Reach school in Karachi’s Gulistan-i-Jauhar area, signs an answer to a question posed by her teacher in the classroom.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
VANYA, a student of the Deaf Reach school in Karachi’s Gulistan-i-Jauhar area, signs an answer to a question posed by her teacher in the classroom.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

By the time we reach the Deaf Reach school in Gulistan-i-Jauhar — one of several schools catering to the deaf community in Pakistan — the lunch break is about to begin. Within minutes, the school is abuzz with activity; children venture out of their classrooms, and the playground and corridor are blanketed with white and blue uniforms.

While talking to Kanza Latif, the school’s education manager, a flash of yellow catches the corner of my eye. It turns out to be a mound of bananas piled high on a large serving plate — the kind one sees at weddings. Students sitting around in a classroom eagerly grab a few. A kitchen on the premises provides a steady stream of goodies and snacks to the students, and doubles as a venue for cooking classes. I’m told students learn the Pakistani Sign Language (PSL) equivalent of each ingredient for the designated dish one day, and how to make it the next.

As I’m given a tour of the school’s primary section by Kanza and Margaret Isaac, a teacher at the school and my interpreter for the day, I can see curious faces peeking up. Lunch break is still going on, and many students are huddled around having their snacks and are engaged in conversation. I’m introduced to Bisma, who smiles back shyly at me when I ask her what she likes about her school. “I’m really happy here because I have a lot of friends,” she informs me via Margaret.

Bisma is like any other 10-year-old — she enjoys hanging out with her fellow girlfriends, dreams of growing up to be a teacher and has an innate curiosity about the world around her. The one ‘difference’— if one can even call it a difference — is that she’s deaf.

The school she attends is a network of seven such institutes started by the non-profit Family Educational Services Foundation (FESF). FESF has been in the news lately because of their push to make PSL, the native sign language of the country’s deaf, more accessible. In November last year, for instance, they launched digital tools and a website which contains a lexicon of 5,000 words.

Schools such as Deaf Reach provide an oasis for those on the margin: it is a microcosmic community for the deaf, particularly those who come from underprivileged backgrounds. And passion of the students at being given this opportunity to explore the world around them is evident.

In each of the classrooms one can see a number of enthusiastic students signing answers to questions posed by their teachers. In one class, a lesson on Urdu is taking place, in another, one on social studies. In class 4, a mathematics lesson is taking place. “Is this hard?” the instructor, Abdul Majeed, asks the students. “No, it’s easy,” they promptly reply, the classroom a flurry of fingers and gestures. One after another, the students promptly answer the brain-teasers posed by the teacher — who himself was once a student at the school. Indeed, life does come full circle.

The next period is science. The teacher, Zohra, holds a discussion with her students on how to eat healthier and make your bones stronger. “Who eats chhaliya [betel nuts]?” she signs. Waves of gestures fill the classroom. “No we don’t,” student after student signs back. The teacher jokes back, “I know you do. Tell me honestly.” She continues, “If we have healthy food like yoghurt and milk, we’ll have more strength and power.”

Every class we sit in on, students enthusiastically “salute” to us (PSL for hello), but the largest commotion is in kindergarten. Every child comes up to say “hi” to us; many seem restless and clamber out of their seats while a few are drawn to the photographer accompanying me. One confident girl in particular, Vanya, who has the deepest blue eyes I have ever seen, is very curious. Clearly a model in the making, she begins posing for pictures. She bounces around, is eager to know our names, and signs to me “I’m a monkey” eliciting a lot of laughter from everyone around.

“They get sad when it’s Sunday. They miss being in school,” pipes in Kanza.

Many of Vanya’s schoolmates are equally overjoyed to attend school and are brimming with talent: from 13-year-old Uzair Shah, who, like many of his peers, has an insatiable passion for cricket and has ambitions to become an engineer, to Kamil, who will soon be sitting for his matric exams and is a talented actor. “After observing you for a while, he’ll be able to imitate you down to the minutest detail,” Margaret points out to me.

Hamza, Kamil’s classmate, is currently learning how to make mobile phone and online apps that will be used to connect deaf communities all over the world. “I’m really interested in this and I want to make [design and launch] a website,” he says. Fizza, who is currently attending college, is aiming to be a teacher once she obtains her bachelor’s degree.

Such a supportive environment could of course not be possible without hard-working individuals like Margaret who have their own backstories. “My bhabi, Jessica, used to work for Deaf Reach and then when I saw little children using sign language, I got very interested. They’re so loving kay dil nahi lagta hai kay chhoray [I don’t have the heart to leave them],” she says.

More than 200 children attend the school, and each one is, in his or her way, making the world their very own. The only thing that they lack access to is better technology. Salman Ahmed, a marketing manager at the school who was born deaf, says the one thing he was amazed by when he attended the Rochester Institute of Technology in the US was “the technology over there. It is a very different environment and there are no communication barriers”.

This is something he wants to bring to Pakistan. “I came here [FESF] to improve the lives of deaf people,” he emphasises. Given that the country’s deaf community is an estimated 1.25 million, and existing institutes cater to a very small percentage of them, Salman has his work cut out for him.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2015

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