It’s a single-storey structure in one of the many shanty slums around Karachi, Pakistan. There’s nothing remarkable about the house with a sheet roof and bare unpaved floors – it’s much like the others in the area, which house mostly manual labourers. But the child who’s getting ready for school inside this house is special.
Nine-year-old Nadeem Ahsan is wearing a uniform, albeit slightly crumpled, and knotting a blue tie around his neck as he steps out of the grey sheet iron door, ready to board the school van that’s waiting outside. Very few of the neighbouring children even go to school and certainly not in such style.
Inside the van, a flurry of hands greet Nadeem. His friends have plenty to tell him, but the school van is quiet. Instead of shouting, the youngsters’ fingers start to move frantically, telling him their stories. He replies with a few waves of his dexterous fingers.
Nadeem and his friends are just some of the 9 million people in Pakistan who have some form of hearing loss. “That is around 5 per cent of the population,” says Richard Geary, founder and executive director of Family Educational Services Foundation (FESF), a non-governmental organisation that runs the Deaf Reach Schools and Training Centres in Pakistan, where children like Nadeem go to study. “Around 1.5 million children in Pakistan are profoundly deaf and fewer than 10,000 attend school of some kind.”
Richard, 63, and his wife Heidi, 58, have taken on the task of educating and rehabilitating the deaf in Pakistan. They started working with the hearing-impaired after they found out their son was deaf in both ears. “Because of Michael’s handicap we started working with deaf children to learn to help him,” says Richard.
The couple had been working in the social sector in Manila, Philippines, in the 1970s when Michael was born. His disability changed the nature of their social work. “As we grew more experienced we started a small informal club for deaf teenagers, which we called Deaf Reach,” says Richard.
The club proved to be very popular with deaf children, and the Gearys’ determination to formalise this form of education increased. By then they had a channel of communication with Michael through sign language, and they wanted other less fortunate people to experience this freedom.
This came about with a move to India. “We had some colleagues who were working in India who invited us to come and spend some time with them as they knew a lot of young deaf people who could do with help,” says Richard.
“We took up the challenge and moved to New Delhi, India, in 1986, where we continued the Deaf Reach programme. And in about two years we had 519 teenagers from different parts of the country who were part of the club. We provided a forum where they could meet, learn English and different life skills, and we also assisted them in getting employment.”
Many more people to help
After two years the Gearys had to leave India in order to renew their visas. “We went to visit a friend who was living in Karachi in 1989,” says Richard. “There we got involved in helping him with some other social projects. As we were unable to renew our visas to India, and we realised there were a huge number of deaf people with no effective means of communication in Pakistan, we started our Deaf Reach project from Karachi 24 years ago.”
It was tough going initially, as they split their time between the project and their son, who needed a lot of attention. But as Michael picked up sign language fluently, the Gearys began to get more involved in the project.
They established FESF with donations from various communities across the country, and continued the Deaf Reach project in Karachi. “Initially we helped teenagers gain life skills and helped them find employment,” says Richard. “One of our benefactors donated two rooms in a building, which encouraged us to start a small classroom where we taught 15 primary-level deaf children, including Michael, from the slum areas of Karachi. That grew slowly until we started a formal school in Karachi in 2007. Our school grew to 150, and we now have six schools with over 1,000 children.”
The difference the schools have made to the lives of these youngsters is all too apparent. Take Amanat, one of the first students to be enrolled in the Deaf Reach School at five years old. “His parents were at their wits’ end as he was a very hyperactive child and they assumed him to be mentally handicapped,” says Richard.
Relatives advised Amnat’s parents to keep him at home until his behaviour improved. “With the patience and persistence of school staff and his parents working together to help Amanat, he is now one of the school’s best students,” says Richard. “He’s changed amazingly since he joined and is now a very polite, well-mannered boy who frequently excels in his studies. He’s now in class three and continues to make good progress.”
Many of the students go on to become teachers themselves, like Ashraf Mushtaq. The first in his family to be born deaf, Ashraf was very shy and withdrawn as a child. “He came to us as a teenager and did exceptionally well, graduating at the top of his class, though he was painfully shy,” says Richard.
But all that changed when Ashraf was offered a teaching position in Deaf Reach. “His transformation from a reserved, withdrawn personality into the confident and focused person he is now has been truly remarkable to observe,” says Richard. “In an environment where everyone speaks his language, Ashraf has shed his inhibitions and is now making a hugely positive contribution to the lives of his students and co-workers.”
His excellence in the classroom was rewarded when he was given one of two fully sponsored openings to attend a six-week teacher training course at a prestigious school for the deaf in Jordan. It was the first time he stepped on to a plane and his first time outside of Pakistan. Ashraf is also in charge of Deaf Reach’s job placement programme assisting young deaf adults to find gainful employment.
The Deaf Reach campuses located in the Pakistani cities of Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Nawabshah and Lahore form the only branch network of schools for the deaf in both urban and rural areas in the country. Daily transport up to a radius of 40km from each centre is provided for all students. Facilities cover all training costs, inclusive of books, school supplies, vocational materials, transport, uniforms, healthy snacks and excursions.
In addition to academics, each student receives training in a minimum of five marketable skills. Technology is used extensively to reinforce visual learning, with all children mastering IT skills from kindergarten. Students ultimately become literate in three languages: sign language, Urdu and English. So far more than 5,000 deaf students have passed through the Deaf Reach programme.
“Our schools take a holistic approach, teaching both sign language, which is the native language of the deaf people, and also life skills,” says Richard.
“Sign language is not international and is indigenous to each country. In Pakistan the native language of the deaf person is Pakistan sign language. There is a school [of thought] that says deaf people are not necessarily disabled but simply speak a different language and are thus a minority cultural group who need to be empowered through education.
“Our schools provide a curriculum that is on par with the local education system, our children take the government exams and have the same educational curriculum that all other children in Pakistan have. In addition to that, we have skills training as they grow older.”
Straight A students
The deaf children proved they could compete with regular students when they took the government board examinations. “This year all our years of work have come to fruition with our students sitting for the ninth grade examinations, the Matriculation Board exams taken by all school students in Pakistan, and they all cleared it with straight A grades,” says Sarah Shaikh, marketing manager of FESF.
Every classroom is equipped with computers. The morning school sessions are for children and afternoon for adults. Vocational training starts from junior classes with arts and crafts and IT. From grade six onwards it expands to everything from culinary arts to fashion.
“A well-known fashion school in Karachi, Asian Institute of Fashion Design, holds programmes for our students and teachers, so we have a combination of deaf teachers and students going through a fashion curriculum,” says Sarah. “The idea is to see that they produce stuff that will be bought not out of sympathy for our students, but because they are very professionally produced.”
The employability of the students is increased greatly. “Around 400 of our students have been employed so far through the programme,” says Sarah. “Five KFC outlets are run by our past students, six to 10 in each, with only a manager to supervise them. Shell Petroleum’s Shell Awaaz programme absorbs children from our schools who are qualified for their jobs. Some banks, freight-forwarding companies and salons also employ our students.
“Usually the complaint in developing countries is that you train children but they are not given jobs. So we started tackling the problem from both ends by helping in the absorption of the deaf in the workforce, plus giving them literacy, scholastics as well as life skills, grooming them for life. It’s a very successful model.”
That is what keeps Nadeem’s parents sending him to school, even though some of their neighbours send their sons to work in factories to augment meagre family incomes.
Strengthened by tragedy
Many years ago while studying in the US, Michael was killed in a tragic accident. This only strengthened the Gearys’ drive to keep helping the deaf. “This is a kind of legacy of Michael’s,” says Richard. “We have to keep going for his memory.”
Although he’s always looking to improve, Richard is very proud of what the Deaf Reach programme has achieved. “We’ve set up what I think is a very innovative educational model that is very replicable and scalable, and we are the only school for the deaf in Pakistan that has branch networks in rural areas,” he says.
FESF collaborated last year with a non-profit organisation in Adana, Turkey, to open a Deaf Reach centre. “It’s been very successful and meets a need there similar to Pakistan,” says Richard. “I think there’s scope for a project like this in many places including the UAE, as deafness is like an invisible handicap. There are deaf people everywhere who are not always getting the services or education they require.”
Sarah sees many ways that Deaf Reach can be adopted in other countries. “For instance, our parent training programmes,” she says. “We bring in the parents every fortnight to bring them up to speed on what their children are learning and how it’s enriching their life, and we also give them sign language classes so they can communicate.
“It opens the doors for communication. The child who was once approached by their parents with hesitation, with limited vocabulary, or even shunned, now has an enriched vocabulary and they emote and communicate better, thereby making their life easier.”
Sarah sees Deaf Reach’s teacher training programme as another opportunity for growth. “Every six months we bring in our teachers from our regional schools for retraining and our team visits the schools periodically, so whatever skill sets are learnt in any one school are transferred to the others,” she says. “Some of our training programmes are replicated in other centres online by Skype.
“Most of all, it is the realisation that deaf people can do anything except hear,” says Sarah. “If you go into a classroom full of deaf children you feel left out because of the vivid and imaginative way they communicate with each other. They’d converse, joke and have so much fun I’d feel left out. It encouraged me to learn the language and now it’s a really interesting experience because you get to see a different side of a community.
“There are deaf jokes and they are happy people, very motivated and dedicated and with great memory and sharp skill sets. Once you teach them something properly it’s ingrained in their mind. They are also very competitive.”
But Richard feels there’s a long way to go. “There’s a huge gap that has to be met,” he says. “Bridging the gap is everyone’s dream, and I think a lot can be done. If we mobilise public and private sectors, create awareness and make opportunities for the deaf, we can make a big impact even if we don’t bridge the gap.”
The programme depends on donations, both corporate and individual. FESF partners with Etihad Airlines, and when passengers donate airmiles it translates to donations for students.
“Our average cost per child is around Dh200 per month,” says Richard. “Anybody can sponsor a child, or a classroom of 15 children. This way we can be sustainable and give opportunities for more kids to access education.”
To volunteer or donate to the Deaf Reach programme go to http://www.fesf.org.pk/get-involved/
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Who: Richard and
What: Deaf Reach programme
How: Educating and empowering the deaf