Hearing the Hopes of Pakistan’s Deaf World

Many of Karachi’s children go to school in the middle of the bustling Gulistan-e-Jauhar neighborhood of the city, but there’s one school located there that’s so unique, it might as well be in a different world. Walk through its doors and you’ll see the children learning their lessons, English, computers, art, math, and science just like in any other school, but two things strike you almost at once. First, there are no classrooms, just children grouped into different sections in a large open-plan space. And second, there’s no noise, apart from the occasional burst of laughter or wordless vocalization from the children and their teachers, because virtually all the communication is done in sign language: fast little hands waving in the air, forming letters, words and signs with their fingers, the children almost throwing themselves out of their chairs with eagerness to talk to you and show you what they’re doing and learning.

That’s when it really hits you: the world you’ve entered is the world of the Deaf, and you’re standing in the Deaf Reach School, a true center of excellence for academic and vocational training of hearing-impaired and deaf children (when writing about the deaf community, lower-case d – deaf – describes the medical condition, while capital D – Deaf – describes the culture or cultural group). This school is the brainchild of Richard and Heidi Geary, parents of a deaf child and foreign educators who have lived in Pakistan for over 25 years. Along with a whole host of both foreign and local volunteers and staff, they have created one of the most innovative educational networks in Pakistan today, Family Education Services Foundation. FESF is the umbrella that houses not only the Deaf Reach Schools, but also an active teacher training program, seminars and courses for teachers and parents of special needs children, community service outreach, youth leadership development, and a volunteer training program.


In Pakistan, the Deaf face challenges that start from birth and extend to every facet of their lives. Simply recognizing that a child is deaf may be the first challenge. Many parents don’t even realize their child is deaf until around the time when it’s expected that a child would start to speak, but doesn’t. Then, there’s the religious and cultural baggage that comes with that realization. A typical reaction is that deafness is a curse from God, or a punishment to the parents for some imagined wrongdoing. The embarrassment leads many Pakistani families to hide their deaf children away, particularly in the rural areas, treating the children as if they are mentally challenged, not deaf.

But awareness and education can do a great deal to combat the stigma, and reduce the deficits in learning that result from a physical handicap such as deafness. “The sooner a parent realizes his or her child is deaf, the more proactive you can be about providing education for that child at home in terms of language acquisition,” says Geary. “That’s the greatest loss – not hearing, but lack of language acquisition,  most of which takes place in the first five years. 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and thus communication is limited or non-existent. On the other hand, if a deaf child is born to deaf parents, there is in depth communication in their native tongue – sign language.  Hearing or deaf, a child will learn their native language,  whether via visual or aural input  – the impact is the same.”

Yet once a family knows its child is deaf, the next question is how to educate her. The large cities of Pakistan – Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar – have at least four or five major schools devoted to the deaf: ABSA and Ida Rieu in Karachi, the Lahore Speech and Language School in Lahore, for example.  But the rural areas have no schools devoted to deaf students; in the 48 special education schools in Sindh’s 23 districts, for example, they’re lumped in with other mentally and physically challenged students, the teachers are often untrained, many schools have “ghost attendees” – ten or twelve students in a school with a capacity for three hundred, for example.

The Karachi Deaf Reach School was created to fill the gap, starting small out of a premise in Regal Chowk where thirty students, including low-income children from Baldia town were accommodated at their small premises; today, the Karachi campus is one of a network across the country that includes schools in Hyderabad, Sukkur, Nawabshah, and Lahore, with plans to open in Rashidabad, a village in Tando Allahyar. Karachi’s school is split into a primary and secondary campus, with  140 students in the morning shift and  105 students and young men and women in the afternoon. There are 72 teachers working for the Deaf Reach Schools; 45 of them, or 60%, are deaf, and according to Geary, “they make the best teachers.”

The primary school educates students from KG to Class 4, while the secondary school goes up to Class  9. Afternoon students of the Deaf Reach Training School  receive vocational training in the fields of computers and information technology, tailoring and dressmaking, cooking, arts, and handicrafts under the aegis of the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Youth Development Program. Across the five schools, eight hundred students are provided with education, uniforms, transportation, lunch, and all school materials at a cost of Rs. 5000 per month per child. “We don’t have fixed fees; we use a sliding scale – each family pays what it can, which averages out to about  Rs. 120 per month – far short of the Rs. 5,000 required. The rest we raise through donations.  In a year, the operating costs are upwards of Rs. 40 million a year,” says Geary.

With finances being one of their greatest challenges Geary is appreciative of the Sindh Government’s assistance to FESF. Having seen what the Deaf Reach Schools were able to achieve in Karachi and Hyderabad, the Sindh Government invited FESF to open schools in other areas of Sindh. Deaf Reach Sukkur was opened in 2010, and today has over 300 students, and a new school has just opened in Nawabshah. There’s also a large Deaf Reach School under construction in Rahsidabad, a model village in Tando Allahyar established by retired PAF officers, where a purpose-built building will to accommodate 500 children on two acres of land beside branches of other Pakistani philanthropic institutions such as The Citizens Foundation and the Leyton Rehmatullah Benevolent Trust.

“The government has provided startup and two years’ running costs for new schools, but it’s making the program sustainable in the long-term that’s the real challenge. Many people are willing to contribute to capital expenditure, but who underwrites twelve years of education? Because that’s the real cost of educating a child and making him a productive member of society,” says Geary.

Through FESF’s efforts, personal contacts, community outreach, and reputation for being honest and above board – the organization has internal accountants and external auditors – word of mouth has spread to other organizations, who have extended their support in various ways. Not only is FESF supported by the Planning and Development Department and the Community Development Program of the Sindh Government, but they have operated under the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Youth Development Program for the last 3 years, providing six months’ training courses to hundreds of young men and women in Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur,  and achieving an almost unheard of 55% employment rate amongst their trainees. The Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund is a partner as well, and private corporations such as PSO, HSBC, and Standard Chartered also provide funding to the Deaf Reach Schools.

“We’d been freelancing for years, but we decided to formalize our activities, and that’s when we began to achieve a momentum, a tipping point, you might say,” explains Daniel Marc, a French-Canadian who serves as the FESF’s administration director. “We registered as a nonprofit under Section 42 of the Pakistan Companies Ordinance. We received a tax exemption certificate. We moved to our new premises in 2007, where we could offer more services in a better environment. The growth is organic, but it has to be controlled so it doesn’t outpace us.”

Marc illustrates the growing need for adequate facilities to teach the deaf with a telling example: the Deaf Reach school in Sukkur has grown from 30 to 300 students, a 1000% increase, in the 2 short years that its doors have opened. “And there are more than 150 children on a waiting list for admissions. And the need is similar in every district of Sindh.”

And there’s every possibility of being overrun by the demand: in Pakistan today, 9 million people are hearing-impaired, with 1.5 million out of those children who are deaf. This number comes from the recent National Task Force planning meeting, the Audiology 2020 conference held in Islamabad two years ago, where government officials, representatives from the main deaf schools in Pakistan, medical experts, United Nations officials and global activists in the deaf world met to create a five year plan to improve the situation of the Deaf in Pakistan.  Modeled on Vision 2020 and sponsored by CHEF, the Child Health Education Foundation, and the Pakistani Government, the task force gathered these experts at a large conference and then smaller subcommittees to make recommendations to the Pakistani government how to manage hearing problems from both the medical and early intervention side, as well as the educational side.

Like many big conferences of this nature, the initial signs were promising, but the follow-through has been less strong. Still, the Government of Sindh is showing a long-term commitment to improving the situation for Pakistan’s deaf. Pervez Musharraf’s 18th Amendment’s devolution plan moved the responsibility of special needs students from the Federal Ministry of Social Welfare and Special Education to the individual provinces. A Directorate of Special Education was set up in provincial government of Sindh, and its head, Imtiaz Shaikh was made Advisor/Minister Special Education Department. “He’s been very proactive in helping us,” says Geary. “He called a meeting at the Sindh Secretariat for all NGOS that deal with special needs to have a forum for discussion on the goal of making Karachi handicap-friendly by the year 2030, and he’s been active in the follow up and implementation.  He is presently working with Amin Hashwani of NOWPDP on a plan that includes city wide wheelchair ramps, a special CNIC window for special needs populations, and other tools of accessibility in the city.”

But the Deaf feel uncomfortable with certain aspects of the government’s 2% employment quota and the other benefits attached to holders of CNICs for special needs citizens: free primary school education in special education centers, special assistance in government entrance exams in certain professions, financial and equipment assistance, reduced travel fares on Pakistan Railways, for example. “The Deaf don’t like the card because they don’t consider themselves disabled. They consider themselves a minority cultural language group that speaks a different language,” explains Geary. It’s this attitude that is the key to their empowerment, a strong movement in the deaf world globally, which focuses less on the medical definition  ( referred to with a lowercase d) and more on the cultural definition of Deafness (referred to with an uppercase D), with its own culture, history, and rules.

Empowerment at Deaf Reach Schools comes from a powerful technological tool: the classrooms of the Deaf Reach School are connected to the Internet all the time, with the Internet and computer technology seamlessly integrated into the curriculum and teaching practices. Teachers use computer programs to teach sign language – a computer screen displays words accompanied by illustrative video clips of children signing the words and using them in everyday life for context, while the teacher stands at the head of the class and helps the children learn the signs. Teachers also use media constantly during school hours, to research curriculum, download lessons, find YouTube clips that will hep their students, and plan and organize lessons and timetables – anything and everything to make the learning environment more stimulating and efficient.

One of the most exciting technology projects being worked on today at Deaf Reach is the development of a “visual video dictionary” for deaf people to learn sign language. It’s being professionally filmed at the Deaf Reach School studio, and teachers and students alike are involved, acting out the signs as their written equivalent is flashed on the screen in both Urdu and English. “We hope to include about eight to ten thousand words in the dictionary, and students will learn three languages at once: Pakistani sign language, English, and Urdu. This will make Pakistani Sign Language accessible and available across the country, and also enable families to learn sign language in order to communicate with their deaf children,” explains Marc.

With no specialist training existing in Pakistan for teachers who work with the Deaf, Deaf Reach has trained their most apt students and provided them the opportunity to teach the next generation of deaf children. Sixty percent of the teachers in the Deaf Reach School are also deaf, but their deafness actually makes learning faster, according to Daniel Marc. “They understand the world these children are coming from.” That understanding and trust is a key issue in the deaf world, with the deaf population feeling somewhat mistrustful of the hearing population because they have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. But, according to Richard Geary, the Deaf are “very resilient, very independent, self-reliant. They don’t have a poor-me attitude. They’re happy and positive, they’re over-comers, even the girls. They’re not ashamed or embarrassed by their inability to hear. They write notes if they’re literate, or they sign or lip-read. They go out of their way to be heard.”

And the students of the Deaf School have ambitions beyond the classroom walls.  Working in partnership with other organizations that serve special needs populations, such as NOWPDP (Network of Organizations Working for People with Disabilities), FESF has managed to place their students in employment programs such as in KFC Restaurants, modeled on a similar scheme started in Cairo 20 years ago, where deaf students are working in five branches of the fast food chain in Karachi and Lahore. FESF has trained 45 students and placed them in jobs at petrol stations under the Shell Petroleum’s Awaaz program; NOWPDP helped place 15-20 deaf students at Artistic Milliners, the clothing design company in Karachi. Other former students work at United Bank Limited, DHL, and Allied Caterpillar; several deaf women who studied at the school’s Lahore campus are employed with Khawaja Electronics, where they make Fuji capacitators.

“As you can imagine, employment opportunities for the Deaf are very limited,” Geary says. “So we’re now exploring a business model for an income generation scheme. A job isn’t the only way, it’s just one facet. We want to create a line of products that can be marketed locally and internationally, and run as a company in which they will have a stake in the business. This is financial inclusion, which will eventually make them self-reliant, no longer dependent on society, their parents, or the community.”

In the end, what the Deaf Reach Schools deliver is twofold: quality education for an underserved population, and a legacy for the future. “We have a teacher working with us from Baltistan,” says Daniel Marc. “His wife came down here with their children all the way from Skardu, just for a few months so that she could get some training. He’s teaching here with us now, but they want to eventually go back to Baltistan and open a Deaf Reach School there. We worry about the future, about how the project will continue after us, but we are hopeful.”  With the intelligence, resilience, and positivity on display at the Karachi Deaf Reach School, there’s every reason to believe the legacy FESF has created for Pakistan’s deaf world will not just continue, but thrive in the years to come.

Find  Family Education Services Foundation online at: http://www.fesf.org.pk

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