BY CHAREENI KURUKULASURIYA
I watched carefully as the young girl moved her hand to tap the side of her head with two fingers where her large silver barrette was clipped. She then gestured at me to imitate the sign as she went to the front of the classroom and printed her name on the cloudy blackboard in Sinhala characters. Latika. With no way of hearing the sound of their own names, the students at the Reijntjes School for the Deaf have to invent their own signs to replace their names so they can address each other. Latika turned to me, smiling, and showed me her right hand with her thumb up. She then pinched her fingers together and spread all five in a flicking motion. Good morning. That was the first phrase I learned in Sri Lankan sign language.
At the Dr. Reijntjes School for the Deaf in Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, hearing-impaired children are given an opportunity that they would otherwise never have: The chance to receive a proper education, which less than half of Sri Lanka’s disabled school-aged children receive. Village schools especially are ill-equipped to teach the hearing-impaired, and the families of the children are unable to take their children to receive appropriate medical attention. Many also do not know that special schools for the deaf exist.
The Dr. Reijntjes School for the Deaf stands out from other schools in its commitment to providing free education for hearing impaired children from the poorest of families. As the founder-principal, Tineke de Silva has made it her personal quest to ensure that her school for the deaf gives students the best education she can possibly provide them. De Silva originally worked in her home country at the Deaf School in the Netherlands, but she visited Sri Lanka with her husband Susiri to help schools in remote villages. Eventually she took the initiative to start a school for the deaf in Sri Lanka that could serve impoverished areas. What began in 1982 as six children and two teachers sitting in a circle on the floor of a leaky building has now become a residential school with 20 staff and boys’ and girls’ hostels on-site, capable of accommodating 100 students.
Establishing a school, let alone one for the deaf, in a foreign country is difficult enough. De Silva’s choice to do so outside of the framework of an existing charity or organization meant forging her own path and facing additional obstacles in order to guarantee the success of the school. However, her decision to run the school independently allowed her to maintain control over how she ran the school. While Sri Lanka has multiple schools for children with disabilities, they often become overcrowded, especially as most serve a mixed population of disabled students. Very few schools are solely devoted to deaf education; they attempt to teach the mentally disabled, hearing impaired, and visually impaired children all at one institution, something which de Silva believes does not benefit any of the students in the class. Similarly, restrictions are imposed on how these schools operate if they are associated with a religious organization.
Financial issues were the first challenge de Silva faced when she started the School for the Deaf. However, her connections from her previous position as a teacher at the Prof. Huizingschool in Enschede helped her to get support from the Dr. Reijntjes Foundation in the Netherlands. About 90 percent of the funding for the Reijntjes School comes from donors in the Netherlands, while only 10 percent comes from Sri Lanka and other countries. The Sri Lankan government does not provide any financial support to private schools like the Reijntjes School apart from an annual grant from the Social Services Department. Various Dutch churches, schools, and organizations for the welfare of the handicapped make donations to purchase new equipment for the students and renovate the school. The Liliane Foundation in the Netherlands is currently the school’s biggest sponsor. “I keep in contact with them so they continue to sponsor children, and they regularly send people to visit the school and see how we are managing. Maintaining good contacts with the sponsors is extremely important. Mostly I take the initiative to raise funds, though filling out all the forms and questionnaires can be quite frustrating,” de Silva said.
While increased funding for special schools can certainly help, de Silva also believes that public awareness about the different handicaps that affect children should also be promoted. Local organizations and Sri Lankan families often make private donations and sponsor children at the school. Due to the prevalence of Buddhism and Hinduism in Sri Lanka, religious charity is an important part of the culture in the country, making it the eighth ranking country on the Charity Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index, higher than any other developing nation.
Having overcome the considerable difficulties involved in establishing the school and supporting it financially, de Silva was able to focus on instructing the students and optimizing their chances for success. In countries like Sri Lanka, deaf children are often treated as mentally handicapped children and don’t receive any education at all. “So many of the parents are uneducated and many of the fathers are unemployed or alcoholics,” said de Silva. “As a result, it is difficult for these parents to guide their deaf children properly. When I worked at the Deaf School in the Netherlands I was never confronted with all these extra social problems.”
In a country like Sri Lanka, schools are primarily challenged by the extreme poverty that affects a majority of their students. “A lot of our parents have minimal incomes and can’t afford to pay for a hearing aid, school fees, or even clothes and shoes for their children. The school purchases those for the children, and we also pay the travelling costs to travel to and from school for the holidays,” said de Silva. “We have even built several houses for some of the extremely poverty-stricken families of our pupils, who were living on the street.”
One of the most powerful benefits offered at the Reijntjes School is its vocational training program. The older students are equipped with the skills necessary to get jobs in garment factories, offices, agriculture, bakeries, and other fields of work, allowing them to provide for themselves. The school guarantees its students that they will find them jobs, and de Silva stays in touch with the graduates to ensure that they are able to support themselves and lead independent lives, despite their handicap. Many of the students from the earlier graduating classes are married, all of them to deaf partners, and some have children whom they also send to the Reijntjes School, proving how de Silva’s school is already making an impact for multiple generations.
Students are instructed in all the basic school subjects through the method of total communication. They are taught in Sri Lankan sign language, but also learn to lip read as the teacher speaks the lessons aloud as well. The students also learn to use the standard finger alphabet, read, and write in both Sinhalese and English. As the students are placed into grade levels based on their performance and cognitive level rather than their ages, “the largest challenge for instructors is getting the children to communicate their feelings clearly to others,” said Chanika Tillekerathne, a teacher of level 1 at the Reijntjes School. “We want the deaf children to be able to express themselves to their family members, classmates, and friends.”
According to de Silva, one major problem facing special education in Sri Lanka is that schools don’t have the proper programs and teachers that are needed to best assist the students. Her school ensures that the students have the opportunity to express themselves through the arts via dance, theater, drawing, and painting.
Maintaining a well-trained teaching staff is something that de Silva still struggles with, though. “Most teachers are not properly educated in how to teach disabled students, and it is really difficult to get well educated teachers and to keep them,” de Silva explained.
The challenge for deaf students is being able to remember associations made between signed words, written words, and the meaning they convey. So much of their learning in the early stages is based on comprehension and sheer memorization and retention. Beyond learning vocabulary, other concepts such as multiplication and division are also a challenge to explain to younger students, as they are more abstract than addition and subtraction. The level 3 students, most of whom are 12 years old, struggle to learn which new signs shown to them by their teacher correspond to the images and words they copy into their workbooks. The amount of information presented is vast and teachers must be highly-qualified to present it effectively.
Teachers of the school are required to have an A Level diploma and a diploma in Montessori teaching and then go for further training to learn Sri Lankan sign language and how to teach students in the Deaf School. After that, teachers follow a diploma course in special education at the National Institute of Education in Maharagama, Sri Lanka. “As teachers, we try to take advantage of the different seminars on special education that are available from time to time. We also follow the developments being made in our field through articles in magazines and on the internet. Visiting other deaf schools can also give us insight into how other programs achieve success with their students,” Tillekerathne said.
De Silva says she does her best to send teachers to special courses or to invite specialists to give lectures. “However, the teachers themselves are often from remote areas, so when their families suddenly arrange their marriages, my teachers can’t teach at the school anymore because of the distance. So there is still a long way to go even in just providing better training for teachers who work in the special education field,” she said.
For the 90 children currently studying at the Reijntjes School, though, their education is something they value and enjoy, proven by their smiles each day that they attend. They thrive in this environment where they are accepted by their peers and their teachers, and though progress still needs to be made in the field of special education in Sri Lanka, their schooling enables them to ultimately lead successful, independent lives.
Chareeni Kurukulasuriya ‘16 is Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.