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True colours are beautiful

“I am a deaf daughter of a deaf farmer, living in a small village near Dadu. It’s a place where many, if not most, children are born deaf. The deaf and the hearing work side by side; communication via gestures is quite ‘normal’ for the hearing. We have developed our own sign language. Due to poverty, education and employment opportunities are almost non-existent.

“My father admitted me into a school but I was sent home within a few days. Since I was unable to understand them, teachers thought that I should be taught to churn milk and butter, not read books. I cried for days. Upon my insistence, my father tried again after a few years at a nearby village school. But the language barrier struck again and I was once again sent home.

“Though a simple farmer and not able to read and write himself, my father felt my pain. He located a deaf school in Karachi and got me admitted there. I completed my PSL course and then my schooling. Now I teach preschoolers. I still remember my childhood; it was like being in a sound-treated cubicle, completely baffled by the commotion around me”.

This was Fatima, signing away at a workshop organised for the teachers of the deaf. “I recently got married, my husband is also deaf but we have a ‘normal’ hearing baby. I am trying to be a good mother. I always think of my father. Somehow he understood what I felt, more than my mother. I don’t know if I can build the same bond with a hearing child.”

She signed her concern as she rocked four-month old Ibrahim to sleep. She takes him everywhere she goes and believes Ibrahim will learn sign language before he learns to talk.

At that moment, that young woman of 28 seemed like a mountain of strength to me. Clad in a simple shalwar kameez with a chador, she radiated confidence and sublime beauty despite the humble attire. Fatima of the remote village in Dadu stood tall because she had conquered her disability and defeated the prejudices of our society.

As more attendees introduced themselves, a whole new world unfolded. Each told a story of great courage and bravery. These ‘challenged’ people were the unsung heroes of our society. Ahmed – prelingually deaf – had done his BBA and worked on a salary less than a janitor’s for three years. He then took a job as a manager in a deaf school, where he discovered his potential, married a deaf girl and is now a father of three hearing children.

Then there was Saman, also profoundly deaf. This mother of four deaf boys has devoted her life to the cause of the hearing impaired. Hina, hard of hearing, managed to study in the mainstream, did a Masters in Microbiology from KU and then started teaching in a mainstream school.

“My therapist made me go through countless articulation drills and even after repeating a thousand times, people couldn’t understand what I said. It was extremely disappointing”. She couldn’t continue because the label of being deaf was almost synonymous to being incapable. She decided to teach at a deaf school and is now the coordinator of vocational and literacy programmes for senior students.

There were also many hearing teachers who had dedicated their lives to work for the hearing impaired after a chance visit to a deaf school. The hall was full of Fatimas, Hinas, Sabas and Alis – each a testimony to what indomitable will can achieve. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a single individual who wasn’t at least a graduate. This was a small, self-contained world, perhaps a significant part of the population, but living the life of a secluded culture – unrecognised and unappreciated by the rest of the population.

A controversy rages over the merits and demerits of oralism (verbal communication) versus manualism (sign language). Some schools of thought also advocate total communication ie signing combined with spoken language. However, since both languages have a completely different grammar, this would be akin to thinking in Chinese and writing in Greek.

With the advancement of technology, hearing aids and now cochlear implants, the stimulation of the auditory nerve has been made possible. However, the sound that actually reaches the inner ear is not the sound that we, the hearing people, call sound. It is a semblance, a phantasm of what we call sound. The child has to be trained to discriminate between various frequencies and associate meaning to the amorphous flow of information.

The academy award winning documentary ‘Sound and Fury’ follows the story of an Artinian family that has experienced deafness through three generations. It is a powerful and somewhat extreme debate on providing the deaf children cochlear implants. While the deaf brother and his deaf wife want their daughter to learn sign, seeing an implant as a threat to the deaf culture, the hearing brother along with his hearing wife and parents decide to get his child implanted so as not to lose the child to the world of silence.

In Pakistan, it may not be a question of choice, rather of resources. Hearing aids or cochlear implants are a vital component of costly, high-maintenance rehab, supported with intensive therapy while signing comes naturally to a deaf person, needs no devices and involves no cost.

The discussion raging all over the world is whether a cochlear implant is a threat to deaf culture. Will it eradicate deafness? And will the deaf culture vanish, like many other cultures that are now extinct? In my view, the answer is best illustrated in Andrew Solomon’s New York Times bestseller, ‘Far from the Tree’. He mentions a statement by activist Carol Padden, “Just as candles have remained ubiquitous in the age of electricity, just as we wear cotton in the time of micro fibres, just as people read books despite television. We will not lose what Deaf culture has given us.”

The cochlear implant has revolutionised the way people think about deafness. However, talking about its complete eradication may be far-fetched. There will be deaf people in places like the village near Dadu, Martha’s Vineyard and Bengkala (also known as the deaf village) in northern Bali – where deafness is hereditary – the hearing and the deaf will continue to live side by side, not considering it a disability; just as another culture with its own language.

The writer is a speech therapist.Email: sadafshah01@hotmail.com

Sadaf Shahid, "True colours are beautiful," The News. 2013-12-03.
Keywords: Social sciences , Society-Pakistan , Social issues , Social needs , Microbiology , Children , Poverty , Education , Employment , Schools , Carol Padden , Pakistan , Karachi