A Sound Education

Helping deaf children learn and grow in India

text by Anubha George with photographs by Sajeendran V.S.

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Sister Abhaya recalls a time when a hearing-impaired boy tugged at her arm. He pointed to a little bird sitting on the balcony. When the boy had the sister’s full attention, he clapped his hands. Startled, the bird flew away. The boy then turned to Sister Abhaya and, using sign language, sadly noted that the bird was lucky — it could hear. He, on the other hand, was unfortunate because he could not.

“I comforted the boy,” she says, recounting the scene from the earliest days of St. Clare Oral School for the Deaf in the small town of Manickamangalam in Kerala, of which she serves as principal. “I told him never to consider himself unlucky: He had so many abilities — the ability to see, feel and connect. I explained to him he was not inferior to anyone in any way.”

After their conversation, young Jamshad K.H. felt better. With the constant support of the sisters, he grew to understand his own self-worth. Now fully grown, he works as an accountant in a government office in Kerala.

In 1993, the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (F.C.C.) of the province of Ernakulam decided to found a school for the hearing-impaired.

“St. Francis stood for service for the poor and marginalized,” says Sister Abhaya. “Education, therefore, is an important part of our charism.” Accordingly, the community runs 37 educational institutions in the province alone.

“We’re trying to spread the Kingdom of God through these institutions. Our aim is to impart knowledge as well as spiritual, moral and social values in younger generations.”

One of the school’s founding sisters, Sister Abhaya reflects on its humble beginnings. “We started in a very small way. There were two rooms. We had 11 children.” To spread the word, the sisters asked priests in the region to publicize the school among their parishioners.

Since then, St. Clare Oral School for the Deaf has grown. Now, on its three and a half acres of land, the residential institution houses 215 children in dormitories for boys and girls, who are served by 37 staff members, including 11 Franciscan Clarist sisters. Children from all over India come to study here.

“Most children come to us as babies. Their parents leave them here when they’re 3 or 4 years old,” she says. “They stay with us until they’re 22.”

Over that time, the students receive a well-rounded education, with a curriculum taught in international sign language. “We follow the Kerala Board syllabus,” Sister Abhaya says. “They’re taught English and Malayalam, the languages spoken predominantly in Kerala.”

In addition, students can pursue vocational training, such as learning carpentry, or taking special courses in graphic design, accounting and computing.

Krishnan Unni Shivan used to be a student at St. Clare School for the Deaf in the 90’s. He went on to have his name in the Guinness Book of World Records for driving an astounding array of vehicles — even as a young boy — everything from cars to trucks, motorcycles to buses and even construction equipment. Today, he manages a mineral water company based in Cochin. Mr. Shivan makes it a priority to employ other hearing-impaired people, as a way of giving something back to his school and community.

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