What really is deafness ? How does it handicap the child? Why does it affect a child’s speech and their ability to talk ? Deafness or Hearing Impairment as it is currently termed, is an extremely frustrating and serious disability. Since it not visually apparent, it is not even diagnosed and in many cases it is detected more by default than by intent of the parents or elders. Their common responses being - “She isn't talking yet” “He takes no notice when I speak to him” “It’s difficult to understand him” “I’ve been told he’ll grow out of it but I’m still worried” A child who is born deaf is deprived of it’s natural ability to acquire language – something that is inherent and comes so easily to normal hearing children. Unless the deaf child is trained and taught both language and speech he or she will not be able to develop and attain his full potential. What is the need for special schools? Unlike visual impairment or poor-sightedness, which can be remedied by spectacles, deafness is not so easily corrected. The hearing of sounds, words and speech patterns , by itself, does not constitute language. It is merely a means- a medium or vehicle for exchange of communication. For example, a deaf child needs to learn to associate or interpret the word ‘LION’ with the picture and shape of a Lion. This cognition, understanding, knowing or awareness of what is meant by the sounds or speech heard is the first step in a deaf child's learning process. Thus the ability of hearing SOUND is the forerunner to LANGUAGE which in turn, leads to the development of SPEECH. Only in a “special” or deaf school can we provide a STRUCTURED, LANGUAGE-ENRICHED ENVIRONMENT for the deaf child in small groups and one-to-one therapy. In normal schools, this is not possible. The ratio of teachers to students can be anywhere between 30 – 40 students per class. For deaf children, it is much less - between 5-7 - because they have to be able to actually SEE THE LIP PATTERNS and mouth formations of various words or speech. But surely, don’t all normal schools also do the same thing ? What is so different about educating a deaf child as compared to a normal hearing child? The fundamental distinction is that children in normal schools already have an adequate amount of language and speech. On the other hand, the deaf child has no speech or language to begin with. It therefore needs a special structured “language –enriched” and conducive environment to cope with. In normal schools, the focus or emphasis is on teaching “curriculum” or subjects such as history, geography, science , maths , physics etc. Our priorities are different – we believe that with language comes communication and with communication (or speech) comes knowledge. Secondly, Auditory training forms an important aspect of a deaf child’s curriculum throughout his school years. As he learns to make the maximum use of his residual hearing, he shows better comprehensive grasp of language and his ability to listen to, and interpret sounds which he hears leads to better rhythm and intonation in speech. Many of our school children who have had no home training at all before joining, and who appeared profoundly deaf on admission, learnt after 2 years of auditory training, to interpret gross sounds, speech and nursery rhymes through listening alone. Lip-reading, auditory training and speech go hand in hand and form a part of each and every activity done during the day but at times listening is more emphasized than looking and this has helped the children to “ listen” to sounds which they took no notice of in the beginning. The other important concept in deaf education is EARLY INTERVENTION i.e. – catch them young! Around the age between 6 – 12 months or so, Nature begins the development of a child’s speech and hearing faculties. In case of deaf infant or children too, it is most crucial to start stimulating its residual hearing as early as possible with the help of suitable hearing aids. Because of the “plasticity” of the infant’s brain , the deaf child’s motor, auditory and neurological skills develop faster and thereby accelerates the rehabilitation or learning process. Lastly, unlike normal schools, we place great emphasis and importance to PARENTAL GUIDANCE – the role both parents and in particular the mother, has to play in overcoming the handicap of the deaf child. At the School, there is continuous and intense interaction between teachers and parents. Partnership with the parents and family is central to the teaching process for a deaf child. So much so that in MAITRI. we have a highly trained and qualified "Parent-Guidance Counsellor" dedicated exclusively for this purpose. Lastly, why is it so important for a child to speak or have language? The OXFORD dictionary defines the word “LANGUAGE” as :– the use of words in an agreed way as a means of human communication. the faculty of speech, style of expression. Language is the forerunner to “SPEECH” namely the actual articulation of words and expressions. In case of a deaf child, it is initially unable to speak coherently mainly because it is unable to hear !! Fortunately, there is absolutely nothing wrong with their speech organs, namely the vocal chords or larynx. So with proper and intense training they learn to lip-read and speak clearly. Also, today, the spoken word is extremely important for communicating with the outside world, Take for instance, the prime media such as TV and Audio. Try it out yourself - use the “Mute” button or switch to a different language channel - on your TV set and see for yourself. It’s like going back to seeing the “silent black & white movies” of yesteryears. OUR MISSION- to sum up. Our underlying credo ultimately boils down to just one simple statement – Nothing that we do in terms of time, effort or money spent is too much or too good for our deaf children. They deserve the best, the very best of what modern science , technology, training and education techniques have to offer. Only then can we hope to make a real difference in their lives and also in ours. Let’s not for a single moment feel that Deaf children are handicapped – are born of a lesser God and therefore hopeless – to be shunned or tolerated by the community. No, they are very much “ OUR” children ! They are not our “Problems”. They are our “Priorities” !!