This week I had my intro class to sign language from three of the students in my class at the TEDPB (Training and Employment Centre for Disabled Persons) center. It was great fun and so far… I’ve learned the alphabet, how to sign “I love you”, “hello”, “good night”, “airplane”, “dog” and “cat”. Sign language is a primary communication avenue for individuals that are deaf. Sign language uses hands and body motions to speak. Communication disabilities, such as being deaf or mute, make it difficult for students to communicate through speaking or listening. This has become extremely apparent in our class that includes two students who are deaf. One of the students is deaf-mute and communicates solely through sign language, making communication a challenge. Communication is difficult as both the teacher at the centre and myself are not trained in sign language, however we are very fortunate that one of our other students who is hearing impaired, is able to translate many things for us. Although both deaf students have attended a specialized school for the deaf, they continue to struggle with literacy. My time in the class has made it clear that their difficulties with reading and writing are not due to lack of ability but primarily due to lack of resources and an education system that gave them a solid foundation for future studies. Unfortunately children with special needs are often streamed outside of the education system (including those attending specialized schools) after the age of 15. The two deaf students, the youngest of the class, are 16 and 18 years old… it’s really frustrating to see two capable, intelligent and creative young women being denied a great education due to lack of programs and resources.
Working in the class has really emphasized the need for early intervention and great resources for individuals with communication disabilities, and special needs more broadly.
Although many children who cannot speak or hear use sign language to communicate, this mode of communication requires other people to understand or be able to use sign language. There is a need for better resources to allow these students like the two in my class with the same educational opportunities as others.
The sophistication of communication aids has developed over the years, however, many of these resources have to be paid for out of pocket by families, and this financial burden is a deciding factor in many cases. Some assistive devices include: hearing aids, cochlear implants, text, text-to-speech, and writing, and lastly, sign language interpreters. Below are brief descriptions of the different communication aids.
Hearing aids help children who do not have complete hearing loss. They assistive devices that have microphones within them that pick up and amplify sounds; allowing some children, who would in other cases need to see sign language or read lips to communicate.
This is a device that physicians insert into the inner ear. These implants stimulate auditory signals with an electrical pulse that allow some deaf individuals to hear. Even if these implants allow for partial hearing, it can play a very instrumental role in communication.
Text, Text-to-Speech Writing
Children who cannot speak, but still have mobility of their hands and use of their eyes, can use written or typed language to communicate. There are text-to-speech programs that allow children to type and the computer says it for them. These modes of communication remain difficult if the student’s literacy skills have not been developed.
Sign Language Interpreters
Interpreters are instrumental in classroom settings, they help students have a better understanding of what is being taught by interpreting both the student’s sign language for other people and what the teacher is saying for the student.
Working with my class, for me, has given a face to some issues that I know persist in the country… the need for accessibility, resources and most importantly, disability rights advocacy. For students like the two in my class to be included in the regular education system, special accommodations and resources should be available.
Last but not least! Here’s a great example of the power of research, medical advances and accessibility to great assistive technology. This video of Sarah Churman, who was born deaf, hearing herself for the first time after receiving a hearing implant 8 weeks ago.