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A Sound Education

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.

Beyond education and employment, students at St. Clare learn the importance of faith in human life. “We have a Divine Liturgy every morning, followed by a morality class,” says Sister Abhaya. Every Saturday and Sunday, Sister Abhaya tells them stories from the Bible. During summer holidays, retreats are organized for the children, structured around prayer and meditation on the glory of God.

“Parents are happy that their child is learning something that gives them a moral compass,” Sister Abhaya says. “Mothers and fathers are hugely supportive of us and the school.”

It is a May afternoon. The combination of heat and humidity in Kerala can be stifling, especially when the temperature climbs above 95 degrees. This is one such day at the school. Secondary-school students continue to attend class; the others, now on vacation, will be back in June. All around the school, people flit about engaged in various activities, conversing in sign language. Outside, boys divide themselves into teams for a game of basketball.

Kevin Sebastian walks in with his father, Sebastian Joseph. Kevin has been at the school for six years now. His father works in Nigeria but has taken a sabbatical from work to be with his family in Kerala.

“Kevin was 2 years old when we realized something was amiss,” he says. “He wouldn’t respond to sounds. That’s when we took him to the doctor and found out that he couldn’t hear.”

Kevin originally attended a school without the means to meet his special needs. “I just sat there, day after day. The teachers were sympathetic and kind but I didn’t learn anything,” Kevin says. “I couldn’t hear anything; no one would talk to me because they couldn’t communicate in sign language and that was the only way I could convey things.”

When he came to St. Clare, things changed. “At last, I could make friends. I poured my heart out, all those emotions and feelings that I’d been suppressing for years.” Kevin has come to excel in sports and music.

The school’s efforts to serve deaf and hearing-impaired people are not limited to its enrolled students; Sister Abhaya has also produced Bible-study videos in sign language. No such materials were available, she says, “so we made three DVDs. The feedback has been very positive.”

Ajith Paul does not want to go home during the summer holidays. The young carpentry student has already won awards for his work. “I love it here,” he says. “When I go home, my parents and brothers have their own lives, so they’re busy with that. I help around the house, cleaning and cooking.”

At home, his family has taken little effort to learn to relate to him. At most, he says, they will hand him the television remote. “But there’s no point in that because I can’t hear or understand a thing. It’s boring,” he says. He often feels similarly isolated at weddings and other family gatherings. “I just sit there. No one talks to me. They don’t know my language.”

Returning to school, then, comes as a relief. “The most frustrating thing at home is not being able to express myself, my feelings. All my friends are here; my life is here,” he says.

The school’s vice-principal, Sister Phincitta, sympathizes with students who face such barriers. “I see this school as God showing his love for these children. He protects them,” she says.

“God gives us strength,” says Sister Phincitta. “He showers us with his blessings every moment. I tell the children that even though we may suffer, in the end, God does everything for our own good.”

And just as the sisters seek to help and protect the students, the students respond in kind.

Sister Abhaya recalls an afternoon when she had felt sad because a friend of hers had shared some bad personal news. Seeing her upset, some of the children checked up on her.

“They asked me what was wrong. They kept at it, asking me to open up, not to keep anything in my heart,” she says. They knew that Sister Abhaya was sad just by looking at her face.

“The children are very keen observers of faces. They observe our lips to understand what we’re saying; eyes are important for them to understand emotions,” she says.

Sister Abhaya learned a lesson that day: How perceptive and sensitive her charges are.

As with Sister Abhaya, Sister Phincitta has been with the school since it first opened its doors, and has likewise overseen its growth. Interest in the school is still spreading, she reports.

“We have children who are from outside Kerala, from places such as Delhi, Bangalore, Uttar Pradesh,” Sister Phincitta explains. “A growing number of parents want to bring their hearing-impaired children here.”

As the school has grown, help has come in many ways, including from Catholic Near East Welfare Association and government grants. “We need much more to sustain the school; children always have needs,” Sister Phincitta says. “There are more than 200 children here at the moment. We need more teachers and more support staff. Donations will be helpful toward paying for that.”

She hopes the school can likewise attract more volunteers for activities such as sports or trips to the market.

“The children see us as parents. Most of them come here as babies and leave as adults,” Sister Phincitta says. “Even after they leave, when they have a problem — for example, if they’re struggling in a relationship or marriage — they come straight to us. We’re a close-knit family.”

This can be seen in Ammu Jacob, who came to Sister Phincitta and Sister Abhaya for her son’s birthday last month. She wanted everybody from the school to join in the celebration. Having married a classmate of hers from the school, Mrs. Jacob now has two children. She runs a beauty salon and is an expert in hair and bridal makeup.

“Parents often prefer that their child settle down with someone they meet here,” sister Phincitta says. “In the outside world, it can be quite difficult to find a match.”

Sister Abhaya also runs a pre-marriage counseling course. “This is open to couples from all religions. We have Hindu, Muslim and Christian couples who come to us before they wed,” she says. Last year, in 2018, at least 45 couples benefited from the counseling.

In another of the school’s success stories, Jijo Thomas was the first student from the school to get a job with the Kerala State Electricity Board, a department that maintains and supplies electricity across the southwestern Indian state. Mr. Thomas married fellow student Maria, and they now have two children.

While students at St. Clare find a sense of family and community at the school, forging connections to mainstream society is also paramount.

“When given a chance, our students do very well during their internships and work experience,” Sister Phincitta says. “We encourage companies to try out our students. The employers are often impressed.”

“People need to be open to them. Yes, these children have a disability. But they’re also blessed with many abilities and talents,” Sister Phincitta says.

When given a chance, Adith Suresh swam across the river Periyar, one of the longest rivers in Kerala; when given the opportunity, Salmanul Faris excelled in sport; when encouraged, Akhila P.S. won an award in Bollywood dance.

“We have to be more accepting of them,” the sister says. “We need to change our mindset, our attitude toward them. We should give them equal opportunities and then see them make progress and flourish.”

As one typical day draws to a close, Nanditha Shibu gathers her friends together for a Bollywood dance. The song they have chosen is from a film starring the superstar Shah Rukh Khan — the girls adore him. The music starts to play.

The girls put on a performance worthy of accolades.

“We regularly win awards at Kerala’s prestigious cultural programs,” says Sister Phincitta, who also teaches dance — including Thiruvathirakali, a traditional Hindu dance form native to Kerala. Sister Phincitta is pleased with the performance. So are Nanditha and her friends.

“Let’s do this dance at the cultural fest next year, so we can win,” Nanditha says to her teacher.

“And win we will,” she adds, before skipping out of the room.

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