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This school provides free education to the deaf

June 17, 2019 11:40 IST

Balavidyalaya in Chennai is probably India's only school for the deaf that trains the child and (one) parent for free.

Balavidyalaya

IMAGE: Balavidyalaya, The School for Young Deaf Children and Institute for Teacher Training in Chennai was started in 1969. Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

Nearly five decades ago, when Chennai-based Saraswathi Narayanaswamy gave birth to a boy who was hearing impaired, she had only one worry.

"Would my son be able to join a regular school and get a normal education?"

When she approached schools in the city, they told her to get a hearing aid for her son and come back when the child was five.

The year was 1963.

"I went to libraries and started reading about this problem," Saraswathi Narayanaswamy tells Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar.

"I read many books, but the best was by Alexander Graham Bell," she says.

"Do you know his girlfriend was hearing impaired? He (Bell) was trying out a hearing aid for her and stumbled upon the telephone," says Narayanaswamy.

During this time, with the help of a speech therapist in Nandanam, a suburb in Chennai, she was able to help her son teach basic communication skills.

At the age of five, he started speaking like any normal child and was able to join a regular school.

 

Balavidyalaya

IMAGE: Vice Principal Dr Meera Suresh and Principal Dr Valli Annamallai, Balavidyalaya, Chennai. Dr Annamallai has been part of the school for 34 years, Dr Suresh for 24 years.

Her son, who graduated in commerce and later obtained a post graduate diploma in taxation from Madras University, now heads a department in the family owned-business in Chennai.

"I was very thankful to God and told myself that I have to repay him. The only way that I could (do that) was to help other children with similar problems," she says.

Her son's story inspired Narayanaswamy to start a school for the deaf with the help of a friend.

Balavidyalaya life in a car shed.

"We also sat under a tree," she smiles, remembering the journey which began in 1969.

"I first started helping three children at my home. When we started in the car shed we had two teachers and five children."

In June 1989, it moved from the car shed to its current location in Chennai.

Balavidyalaya

IMAGE: Students as young as 3 months enrol at the school.

Balavidyalaya, The School for Young Deaf Children and Institute for Teacher Training, owned by the non-profit Balavidyalaya Trust, is in its 50th year now.

Spread over more than 7,000 square feet, it is probably India's only school for the deaf that trains the child and (one) parent for free.

It has three floors with 16 classrooms.

There are 85 children, 20 teachers and 10 support staff.

Admissions are on throughout the year.

As it is an early intervention centre, the students are required to join when they are as young as 3 months.

"They are here till they are 5 and fit to join normal schools," Narayanaswamy explains.

The student is trained through 12 levels and after that they are ready to join Class I in any school.

"Only deaf children are enrolled here. And they have to be admitted before they are 3 years old," informs Principal Dr Valli Annamalai, PhD, who has been part of the organisation for 34 years now.

"The residual hearing that they are born with can be made use of below 3 years only. Once we start, they have hearing aids (which the parents have to buy) and the residual hearing is preserved. In case early intervention is not done, the residual hearing deteriorates," elaborates Dr Annamalai.

For a new born child, the period up to 3 years is very critical, she says. Because 60 per cent of the knowledge is gathered in these years.

As part of the programme, one parent is also trained along with the child so that they can help the child at home.

"You have to talk to the child at all times," Dr Annamalai insists.

Once you enrol, education for the child and parent is free.

The non-profit Balavidyalaya Trust runs the school. It gets a grant from the central government and donations from friends and wellwishers.

"We do not take donations from the parents of students, because that would not be free education," said vice principal Dr Meera Suresh, PhD.

Dr Suresh, Narayanaswamy's daughter, has been working at the school for 24 years.

The director, principal and vice principal work without any remuneration.

"My brother was hearing impaired and thus I came into this field," says Principal Dr Annamalai.

Dr Suresh joined to help her mother Saraswathi Naryanaswamy, the founder director.

Balavidyalaya

IMAGE: As part of the early intervention programme, the child and one parent are trained for free.

Balavidyalaya was the first school in the country for the hearing impaired.

The Tamil Nadu government has since opened one school for the deaf in every district of the state. The teachers are trained at the Balavidyalaya.

When the child leaves the school s/he gets a report card, a letter and a transfer certificate which is recognised by all schools for admission to class I.

The teacher-student ratio is 1 is to 4.

Children up to 3 years of age, accompanied by their parents, attend school for an hour in the morning.

Children aged aged between 3 and 5 years attend school from 10.30 am to 3 pm.

"We don't teach our children sign language. We teach them how to speak," says Narayanaswamy.

The idea behind the education here is to develop their hearing, voice and natural integration with the normal students.

The teaching material is provided free of cost by the school.

The curriculum has also been prepared here and it is called Sahayak.

More than 1,200 students and 135 trained teachers have passed out of the institute.

Students have been admitted to the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and gone on to do MS abroad, and M Tech here.

The director received a national award from the President for empowering persons with disabilities.

In July 1990, Saraswathi Naryanaswamy presented a paper at the International Conference to commemorate the centennial celebrations of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the deaf and hard of hearing, Washington, DC.

While she was there, she pursued three short-term courses in educational audiology, hearing aids and ear moulds, and language acquisition in infants and young children.

"The course there scientifically affirmed what I already knew. I was doing what they were suggesting, but now I also knew the scientific reason for it. I had developed my teaching methods by trial and error and also by reading," Narayanaswamy says.

"Those days it wasn't easy. We took a loan to buy this place in 1987. The Japanese government helped us with a grant. The central government is helping with a grant. Now CSR (corporate social responsibility) is helping a lot."

The institute to train teachers to guide the deaf was started in 2001, but has had its fair share of challenges.

"I had to fight for recognition for this course. I also had to fight to make sure all my students don't have to study a second language in school. We teach them English and the boards cannot insist on a second language for them."

"In the beginning everything was a fight. The education department refused to help us, saying for them school starts at the age of 5. Finally, the social welfare department came to our aid."

The diploma in 'Early Childhood Special Education for the Hearing Impaired' requires you to be a graduate to join.

It can accommodate up to 25 students at a time.

The course fee is Rs 25,000 for a one-year course.

"My idea is to give equal opportunity for every child," says Narayanaswamy. "The fight is still on."

A GANESH NADAR