Cellphones in the classroom help break down barriers between the hearing and hearing impaired
16 July 2010: Julie Solberg began venturing up the peaks of Uganda’s mountains focused on retrieving deaf orphans with the purpose of providing them with an education. The children had been abandoned and left homeless.
Solberg founded the Child Africa International School in Kabale, Uganda, in 2007 with the aim of integrating deaf children into a regular primary school. Cambridge to Africa, a United Kingdom group that works to advance education in Africa, is working with the school on a cellphone integration project that will make it easier for deaf children to learn alongside, and be taught by, the non-deaf. Ten per cent of the children enrolled at the school are hearing impaired.
SMS text messaging on cellphones has broken the sound barrier that blocked deaf children from communicating with their hearing peers. Deaf children are no longer ostracized from sign-language-illiterate pupils and teachers, and this has given them more confidence.
“Just the fact that they have been given a phone and are taught how to use it has really improved their self-esteem,” said Sacha DeVelle, founder of Cambridge to Africa.
“It has also created a bond between deaf and hearing students involved in the pairing buddy system and has encouraged the deaf students to make an effort when writing.” Students that once ridiculed and teased the hearing impaired children now have a way to communicate with them and to understand them.
The project, which began on March 9, has elated DeVelle by the speed with which it has united the whole school. “Deaf and hearing teachers now have a common project that also contributes to the school curriculum.”
DeVelle said there are still some difficulties to overcome. The cellphone network surrounding the school sometimes goes down for days and prevents the deaf students from sending text messages. Secondly, the limited writing skills of younger and new deaf students hinders their ability to text, but the school has increased its focus on developing the students’ writing vocabulary. Finally, students must overcome the grammatical and stylistic differences of deaf writing that can impede communication.
Older students have taken to their new mode of communication swifter than their younger peers and have integrated the cellphones into the mainstream classrooms. Some deaf students are still struggling with the concept.
“They like watching and being involved but the act of sending a message takes time for them to understand,” said DeVelle. “Once they pick it up they become quite addicted to the mode of communication.”
The cellphone initiative at the Child Africa International School is part of a new era in which more people are trying to break the barrier of the world’s strict adherence to oralist education methods.
This summer in Vancouver, the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) will convene from Sunday to Thursday with the hope of abolishing a resolution from the 1880 ICED that removed sign language from educational programs.
“Statistics on deaf education continue to be very sad, it is devastating that only a small minority have access to schools or are able to read or write, or are able to receive bilingual education,” said Markku Jokinen, president of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). “The majority [of deaf children] have no opportunities to go to schools, not to mention receiving education in sign language.”
A commitment to oralistic education across the globe has left deaf people out of the discussion on their own education. A lack of understanding sign language has left the deaf voiceless. Jokinen said, “A basic principle, however, is that deaf communities must be listened [to] and respected.”
Jokinen wonders why societies still continue to fail their deaf children and adults. He cannot find a satisfactory answer and says a bilingual method has unquestionable and positive learning results.
To the deaf there is a strong prejudice against sign language, which is not often viewed as a real natural language. “Every same thing can be expressed in sign languages as in spoken languages,” said Jokinen.
He wants deaf people to have a basic right to education. Jokinen said most deaf people still remain illiterate and their poor education reduces many opportunities in life, resulting in poverty and discrimination.
WFD actively follows progress in the field of telecommunications and promotes research for new technological advances that meet the needs of deaf people. Jokinen warns that technology must not create more obstacles for the deaf. He agrees that both cellphones and computers are playing an important role in breaking down barriers in communication and access to information.
First published by The Vancouver Sun newspaper July 16, 2010