Their voices heard

By Zubeida Mustafa

IT IS located in the heart of Karachi in one of the noisiest and  most congested downtown areas near the Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum at what was Purani Numaish. Once you enter the gates of Ida Rieu School for the Deaf and Blind you are in a different world altogether. It is spacious, quiet and reasonably green.

The two structures (there are more at the back), which greet you as soon as you enter, bring together two eras more than half a century apart. The building housing the administration’s office was built in 1924, three years after the school was founded. It is named after the wife of Sindh’s Commissioner in those days, an Irishwoman who was a nurse and an active social worker. She fell from a horse and died when returning from a visit to the poor to whom she was devoted. The school was founded in her memory. The second building made of beautiful rich brown stone, houses the classrooms for children with hearing impairment. This was inaugurated in 1985.

The school premises are striking. The bright and colourful pictures of the nursery characters which adorn the nursery characters which adorn the walls of the classrooms and corridors, the open courtyard with some greenery and the general air of neatness of the place to an extent compensate for the eerie silence to which its 600 students are doomed.

These youngsters, ranging from four to eighteen years in age, are more fortunate than many others in the same boat in Pakistan. Suffering from severe hearing impairment from early childhood, most of them have not been able to learn how to speak normally. Since they came to Ida Rieu when it was too late – a child’s speech ‘window’ closes at the age of four or so – a hearing aid has not helped them either. They have been taught sign language to enable them to communicate.

There are others who have, with the help of special equipment and speech therapy, learnt to speak a little. True, it is not easy to understand what they are saying because their speech is not too coherent. But with an effort one can communicate and by the time they complete class 12 and are twenty or so, they are ready to be somewhat integrated into the social and economic mainstream. Given the confident demeanour and cheerful disposition of the children I met – they all tumbled over one another to greet me and each of them wanted to shake hands with me – one can feel reassured that these kids will make something of their lives, their disability notwithstanding.

Qudsia Khan, the principal of the Ida Rieu school for the last 24 years, runs the place with a firm hand and total commitment. Having been the moving spirit behind its transformation, Qudsia is rightly proud of it. She took me around to visit the classrooms. The teachers were asked to demonstrate their teaching skills with children. Apart from 49 teachers, the school has an audiologist whose job it is to take care of the physical dimension of the children’s hearing disability – screening the students, testing their hearing and fitting them with hearing aids.

Now more than 70 years old, the school is the oldest institution in Pakistan for the hearing impaired. It is run entirely on donations from philanthropists and, as is usually the case with such institutions, is always short of funds. “It is because of resource constraint that our teacher-student ratio is far from ideal. It is best if one teacher handles five children. On the contrary, each of our teachers is required to cope with ten pupils,” remarks Qudsia Khan.

“Again, we do not allow the children, all of whom are fitted with hearing aids (donated by God-fearing philanthropists and welfare organizations), to take their aids home. Ideally, the should be wearing their aids all the time that they are awake. But when we allowed them to take their aids home, the parents did not give this little equipment the care that is essential to keep it in good working order. Many of the aids would be misplaced or damaged due to careless handling. It would mean a few thousand rupees lost in one stroke (an aid costs anything from Rs. 2000 to Rs. 20,000,” Qudsia adds.

And then the Institution cannot admit the numerous students who want admission but are turned back because of its limited capacity. Without funds there can be no expansion.

The school charges a nominal fee of Rs 20 per month per child. The children all come from poor homes. “Mercifully, a number of small schools for the hearing impaired are now sprouting up in people’s homes. Graduates from the Special Education Department of the University have responded to the situation of running classes at home.” Qudsia says. Not all of them are up to the mark. But then, as Qudsia says. “Something is better than nothing.”

Source: Dawn, 12 Feb 1998