CNEWA
ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

The Deaf Hear, the Mute Speak

The hearing impaired in Beirut have a lifeline in the Father Roberts Institute for the Deaf.

It is just before eight in the morning. The school yard is abuzz with children of all ages. Some are clustered, deep in conversation. Some have something to show in their schoolbags and are sharing it with their friends. One group of preteens – boys and girls – is jumping rope.

In each case you notice that eye contact is constant. Although gesturing is a given in Arab culture, you notice that this group seems bent on breaking all the records.

As you watch you notice the gestures are defined. As you come closer your ears strain to catch what the children are saying. They spot you – a foreign visitor. You are surrounded. Each of your sleeves serves as a tugging ground for four or five youngsters. They have much to say. Much to share. Much to ask.

They spot your camera. “Ham” is served for your len’s benefit. The girls twitter and fall back. The bigger the boy the more face you see. Best friends embrace, hoping their twosomeness will prove irresistible.

The need to communicate is overpowering. Anything to achieve contact is tried. Even if you have guessed the bottom line of this story, you are not prepared for the hearts and hands of these children. They are all hearing-impaired.

It is 8:15. A sprightly young nun meets you at the door. Her warm and friendly smile turns stern as she sends a nonverbal message to a group of overactive boys on the playground. Her smile returns as she greets one of the younger children whose mom has just brought her to the school.

Whistles shriek and the students line up. Each class is a line. Each line is a lesson in discipline. Uniforms are crisp and clean. A quick check is done by the nun and the teachers. Each ear is checked, not so much for cleanliness as to be sure each child is wearing his or her hearing aid.

Before his death on Easter, 1983, Father Ronald S. Roberts, the founder of this institution for the hearing-impaired, entrusted it to the Basilian Shoureit Sisters, a Greek Melkite Catholic community. As an English priest serving as a chaplain with the British forces stationed in Lebanon during World War II, Father Roberts grew to know the Lebanese people and their problems.

He returned after the war and purchased a crumbling mountain villa in the Beirut suburb of Harissa, intending to establish a home for the incurably ill. One day, however, he opened the door to a homeless five-year-old deaf and mute boy. When he realized that no one was filling the desperate need to educate the hearing-impaired, Father Roberts could not turn his back on their plight.

Soon the hearing-impaired outnumbered the incurably ill; eventually the school, then called the Home in the Hills, accepted only deaf boys. Girls came later. Since he knew very little about the education of the deaf, Father Roberts returned to Europe to learn.

Once back in Lebanon he recruited teachers, bought and borrowed equipment. For 24 years the English priest cared for deaf children in an atmosphere of warmth, intimacy and affection.

Today, Father Roberts’ Institute for the Deaf guides and teaches 105 students. The staff of 25 is trained and specialized in the teaching of the hearing-impaired. The school curriculum is practically the same as that of hearing children. In addition, each child is instructed in lipreading, sign language and speech therapy. Because they are surrounded by classmates with similar challenges, the youngsters are motivated to succeed academically as well as socially, and over the years the school has mainstreamed some high achievers.

From the age of four and up students may board. Under four they come on a daily basis with their mothers.

Class begins. I am ushered into a room of nine-year-olds. They are studying weather. Two boys are seated on chairs; the other children are grouped on the carpet. A beautiful little girl is busy pasting a cloud in the winter section of her picture.

Teacher and students, students and students, communicate by a combination of speech and signing. This is encouraged; communication is the ultimate goal. The two boys seated away from the other children are the class’s troublemakers. They look at the nun and at me sheepishly. I cannot help grinning. Sister is not so generous. She runs a tight ship.

Part of my tour allows me to visit the areas of the school that CNEWA’s Beirut office has made possible: Two soundproof rooms for one-on-one testing and instruction, a bedroom for a live-in teacher and a bathroom. These were just completed. In the past, CNEWA’s support helped out in the kitchen with a major retiling job and other upgrades. We stop there too and talk to Siham, the cook. Stuffed cabbage is on the day’s menu. Proud of her work, Siham, who is also hearing-impaired, is scurrying around getting lunch ready for the students and the staff.

Hearing-impaired adults are as important as anyone else at the institute. Work is found for as many of the adult students as possible. In the institute’s sewing workshop, four adults are sewing sportswear for some 15 Catholic schools throughout the country. Patterns line the walls; cutting boards are loaded with fabrics. Scissors lie silent only because the production line has become the sewing detail. The spools spin like whirling dervishes.

Another adult endeavor is the bakery. Its location – next to Notre Dame University – was chosen carefully by some clever marketers whose rationale was that students on breaks eat cakes.

We return to the small testing rooms where four-year-old Jouann is working with a teacher, Ursula.

“They aren’t deaf,” explained one teacher, “not profoundly deaf.” Therefore the first item of business is to find out how much hearing still exists. Teaching the children to use the hearing they have is the greatest challenge and reaps the greatest rewards.

Ursula has little Jouann seated at a table. The deck of cards the little girl holds displays numbers. Ursula, with a drum, sits behind the child and readies her for the exercise. The drum booms twice. Quickly, Jouann takes a card with a “2” and lays it on the table. Ursula strikes the drum four times. You can almost see Jouann’s mind working. She lays down the “4” card. Praise is plentiful but the game is such fun that all Jouann really wants is to get back to it.

As if to balance their handicap, these youngsters have tons of personality; every child has an extra dose. And with each other, the bonds of friendship are special. As one of the sisters said, “I’d like to live in their world.”

Ursula changes pace. Speech is the next order of the day. Jouann is given a doll and as Ursula coos to the doll so, with lips pursed, does the little girl. The sound is faint but improves with Ursula’s prompting.

Stuffed animals, puppets and other toys are used to encourage the children to make noises, which will be channeled into sounds, into words, into sentences – into “linguistic tickets” that will gain the children entry into the world of the hearing.

Nadia, another of the institute’s teachers of the deaf, agrees to let me sit in on a first session with a new child. She does not yet know that the little boy, named Fadi, is only eight months old.

I had watched her with a three-year-old named Sarkis. To win his trust – a lot of educating the deaf requires touching – she had him rolling on giant balls. As she thumped on the ball the vibrations traveled through the little boy’s body. He was delighted. With his mom in the room Nadia showed the woman how to make the most of the little boy’s noises and enthusiasm. Nadia taught the child to watch her mouth, her lips, and then to do the same.

Teaching the parents is all important. Their shame, frustrations and fears can make or break a child’s progress. The inclination to under-discipline at home and over-discipline in public is universal. Throughout the Middle East there is a strong feeling that it is disgraceful to be suffering from a handicap. This feeling must be overcome. The institute’s teachers work just as hard with the parents as they do with their children. And the best advice the teachers have for the parents of a deaf child is to talk, talk, talk.

A microphone of disco proportions is used to determine the child’s level of hearing. Lights blink to indicate the decibels needed to “connect.” This is a favorite with the children.

For the teachers it’s a little like prospecting – when you find even a small nugget of sound and see the look on the child’s face, it is worth gold.

Enter Fadi and Fadi’s mom. “High fever,” the mother had said when asked the reason for the child’s deafness. This is a common answer given by parents, few of whom notice the problem early on or do anything about it until they hear of the institute. “The country is not too big,” said one of the sisters by way of explaining how the news gets around.

Another way of sharing the good news about the institute has been through teachers like Nadia. One of her friends is studying communications and media at university. When given an assignment to produce a feature story she chose Nadia and the institute.

With the help of baskets of stuffed animals, balls and toys in the cheery room, it takes Nadia and Fadi only a few minutes to warm up to each other. To get the child to focus on her mouth, Nadia holds a small toy up close to her face. Fadi quickly mimics her mouth movements, much to the amazement of the mother, whose distraught face is slowly relaxing. By the end of the half-hour session, the woman looks 10 years younger and far more ready to face the future with her son.

Fadi’s steel blue eyes had watched every movement in Nadia’s animated face with delight. No doubt about it, this was love at first sight. And with Nadia’s guidance and good heart, Fadi will hear and make his first sound.

A longtime resident of Beirut, Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor.

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