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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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The Miracle of Ephpheta

With the help of some dedicated sisters, the deaf are taught to speak at Paul VI Ephpheta Institute in Bethlehem.

The miracles worked by Jesus in the Holy Land did not cease with his ascension into heaven. One may still witness them in Bethlehem, at a place called Ephpheta.

Once “a deaf man who had a speech impediment” was brought to Jesus, who “looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, ‘Ephphetha,’ that is, ‘Be opened!’ And the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.” (Mark: 7:33-35)

The Gospel account has the ring of realism. Deafness and impaired speech go together, for speaking is learned through hearing. Jesus both opened the ears of the deaf man and gave him the gift of speech.

Modern miracles giving the gift of speech to the deaf take place at Ephpheta, an institute in Bethlehem named in memory of the Gospel miracle. There, 101 deaf Palestinian children, aged three to 16, are taught to speak and lip-read, making it possible for them to communicate with others.

Most of us take hearing and speaking for granted. We seldom grasp the devastating effects of deafness, particularly in a young child. To be a person requires, almost by definition, having the ability to communicate. Those born deaf are condemned to a lifelong prison of silence, shut off from full human interaction with others. That is unless they are somehow given the means to communicate with others. This is the mission of the Paul VI Ephpheta Institute.

Ephpheta was founded at the Pope’s request after his visit to the Holy Land in 1964. Supported almost entirely by CNEWA-PMP, Ephpheta admits children on the basis of need, not their parents’ ability to pay.

Ephpheta is run by the Sisters of Saint Dorothy, a largely Italian community dedicated to spreading the love of Christ through fostering human and Christian development. Although engaged in many types of educational and social work, the sisters have specialized in educating the deaf.

How does one go about teaching a child born deaf to speak? It is a slow and exceedingly painstaking process. The more I witnessed it, the more I marveled.

The first step began before Ephpheta opened its doors in 1971. The Sisters of Saint Dorothy have more than 100 years of experience educating the deaf. They have developed their own methods for teaching the deaf how to speak. But before Italian sisters could teach Palestinian children how to speak their native Arabic, these sisters had to learn Arabic themselves.

This was no small hurdle: Arabic ranks among the most difficult of languages and it contains guttural sounds not found in Western languages. Europeans and Americans who learn Arabic as adults usually have great difficulty mastering these sounds. Imagine having to master them well enough to teach them to a deaf child! But that is one of the accomplishments of the Sisters of Saint Dorothy.

Other than their hearing disability, the children served by Ephpheta are healthy children. Most are deaf from birth. Sister Francesca Batato, Provincial Superior for the Sisters of Saint Dorothy in the Middle East, explained that it is very important to begin teaching a deaf child to speak very early so that the brain, as well as the tongue and speech muscles, will develop normally. Ephpheta begins working with children when they are 18 months old, or as soon as their hearing disability is diagnosed. They come with their parents to Ephpheta once or twice a week for a preadmission program of testing and counseling. There are now 15 children in the preadmission program with their parents.

Ephpheta’s formal program begins at age three. There are three kindergarten classes for three-to five-year-olds, followed by six primary grade levels. Each class has a maximum size of 12 to 14 children, so that each child may receive individual attention. Teaching a deaf child to speak and lip-read requires a huge investment of individual attention and care.

This was most evident in the daily one-on-one sessions each child had with a speech therapist. Sister Tarcisia Pasqualetti, one of seven speech therapists at Ephpheta, sat with a three-year-old boy on her lap. They faced a small table containing a flower, an electronic display panel and a mirror. She pointed to an Arabic flash card of a single syllable, and then pronounced it, holding the child’s hand to her throat so that he could feel the vibration of her vocal cords. Then she moved his hand to his own throat so that he could feel his attempt to make the same sound.

This cycle was repeated over and over, teaching the deaf child to pronounce correctly but a single syllable of the rich Arabic language. In the mirror facing them the boy could see the shape of Sister Tarcisia’s lips as he attempted to imitate her. The flower was not mere decoration: it was an electronic artificial flower that quivered and danced in response to sound. It provided visual feedback to the child, who could not hear the sound he was making, but could see its effect on the flower.

The electronic display panel was more sophisticated. Its lights provided a visual display of the sounds uttered by teacher and child, analyzed by frequency and amplitude. If the child’s pronunciation exactly imitated that of the teacher, then the corresponding patterns of light on the panel also matched up. The specially designed instrument was even able to display visually the differences between closely related sounds – between “b” and “d” and “g” for example.

“Ba,” said Sister, holding the boy’s hand to her vocal cords. “Bh,” he said. “Ba,” she repeated, pointing in the mirror to show him how her lips were formed. “Bh,” he said again, so Sister Tarcisia showed him on the display panel how his sound differed from her sound. “Ba,” she said, again and again, until the boy finally learned how to pronounce this syllable.

Then Sister Tarcisia pointed to a different flash card. “Baba,” she said. After a few false starts, the boy repeated, “Baba.” Teacher and child clapped in joy over the achievement: “Baba” is a colloquial Arabic equivalent for “Dada” or “Papa.” Words that come as a matter of course to a child with hearing have to be taught syllable by painstaking syllable to a deaf child.

Across the hall, another speech therapist worked with another student, using another specialized instrument. This instrument flashed a green or red light depending on whether the child was making a particular sound through the mouth or the nose. Proper Arabic pronunciation requires some sounds to be made through the nose, and this too must be a matter of patient drill for those who cannot learn the nuances of pronunciation by ear.

Aided by these special instruments, the Sisters of Saint Dorothy make use of what they call the “acoustic system” to teach the deaf to speak. This method employs the senses of sight and touch to compensate for lack of hearing. All learning is made as experiential as possible. I watched as a teacher taught her class of young students the Arabic words for “outside” and “inside” by taking small toys out of a clear plastic bag and then putting them back in again, repeating the process several times.

Another class was engaged in dialogue drills. “What is your name?” the teacher asked one student. “My name is Nabil.” “What is your father’s name?” the teacher asked as she pointed to a photo of Nabil’s father on the bulletin board. “My father’s name is Samir.” Then on to the next student: “What is your name?” Basic drills, but designed to give deaf children courage and ease in speaking even though they cannot hear what they are saying and must lip-read what is being said to them.

Still another small group of children was out with a teacher beside the busy Hebron road that runs in front of Ephpheta. They were learning how to cross a street safely. Like everything else in life, this skill must be learned by doing. Those who cannot hear the sound of an approaching car or a warning honk must take extra care before crossing. So back and forth they went, from one side of Hebron Road to the other, learning to watch until it was safe to cross.

All the children at Ephpheta are fitted with hearing aids, even though their hearing loss is far more severe than may be corrected by a hearing aid. What was the point if they could hear virtually nothing even with a hearing aid? I asked. “Even a tiny point of light is a help in an otherwise pitch black room,” Sister Francesca replied.

The children at Ephpheta are taught arithmetic, reading and all the subjects studied in a regular school. Along with Arabic, they also learn basic English. Personal computers are used for interactive instruction. I watched as a child used a mouse to maneuver through a house portrayed on the monitor, moving the cursor to different items in the house and clicking. In response, the name of the item popped up on the screen in Arabic or English, and a sound-blaster connected to the computer pronounced the name.

Play is an integral element in the Ephpheta program. Even simple games have an instructional payoff. I saw a class of first-graders blowing into pipes, trying to keep a ball suspended in the air above the pipe bowl – an engaging pastime that was also an exercise in breath control. On the playground, Sister Lucy Maule swung one end of a skipping rope and led the girls in counting the skips aloud in Arabic.

One classroom contained musical instruments, and I wondered whether the deaf could be taught music. “A deaf child can be taught everything,” Sister Francesca told me, “even music.” I listened as one of the older girls played a tune on a small organ, reading from sheet music. “Learning music is important because it teaches a sense of rhythm,” Sister Francesca went on, “and normal speech is rhythmic speech.” Even if this deaf girl could not hear the music she was playing, her mastery of the rhythm of its short notes and long notes would help her perfect the rhythm of short syllables and long syllables in speaking.

The aim of Ephpheta is to prepare a deaf child for integration into normal schools and normal society. Consequently, Ephpheta does not teach sign language. Sign language only allows a person to communicate with others who know sign language. Ephpheta teaches speaking and lipreading so that a deaf child will be able to communicate with everyone and lead as normal a life as possible. The ultimate goal is to help each child develop his or her maximum potential.

Achieving this goal requires a partnership between Ephpheta and the parents of the deaf children. On their own, families usually do not know how to deal with a deaf child. Ephpheta offers classes for the families of deaf children and holds regular parents’ meetings for each grade level, so that the efforts of school and family may be integrated. A social worker on the Ephpheta staff visits families that may have problems in dealing with their deaf child.

I saw a number of parents sitting in on their children’s classes, observing how the teacher communicated with the children.

About half the children at Ephpheta attend classes during the day and go home at night. The other half stay overnight during the week and go home for weekends. For those who stay overnight, life at Ephpheta is designed to be as much like normal family life as possible. There are chores to be done, like making ones bed; the older children help with the younger children.

Some children attend classes part time at Ephpheta and also go to regular schools. Every child is a unique case and receives special attention. The goal is to integrate each child progressively into regular schools. Some are able to learn communication skills more quickly than others, so there is no fixed rule for how long a child will be at Ephpheta. There are vocational courses for some of the older children; Ephpheta would like to obtain computers that would allow secretarial courses to be offered.

Some alumni of Ephpheta have now graduated from regular high schools and gone on to various jobs. One graduate of Ephpheta has earned a college degree and works in a medical laboratory. Ephpheta takes the children out on field trips to broaden their experiences – taking them into businesses and factories, for example, to instill in them the hope that they will someday be able to get regular jobs.

There are other kinds of graduates of Ephpheta as well: teachers who have been trained in educating the deaf. Currently, there are about 20 such teachers-in-training, most of them students at nearby Bethlehem University. They attend an hour and a half of class at Ephpheta in the morning and then practice teaching for two hours in the afternoon. Graduates of this program have gone on to staff centers for the deaf elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza. The century of experience that the Sisters of Saint Dorothy have had in educating the deaf, and the methods they have developed, are being passed on to others.

Ephpheta has a staff of 32. Ten are Sisters of Saint Dorothy: 22 are lay professionals in deal education. Eight of the sisters are from Italy, one is from Jordan. Sister Francesca is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian. Even though Ephpheta is housed in a building specially designed for its purpose, and although full use is made of modern technology in educating the deaf, the real secret of Ephpheta’s success is the staff.

Unquestionably, the staff is competent in the techniques of teaching the deaf to speak and lip-read, but they are more than educators. It was quite obvious that the sisters and lay teachers deeply cared for the children. They were more than willing to spend their days teaching three-year-olds how to pronounce one or two syllables, willing to repeat drills endlessly until another bit of language was mastered, willing to be patient, oh so patient, with those locked in a world of silence.

And through all their painstaking work they are joyful and their joy is reflected in the children. One of the notes I jotted during my first visit to Ephpheta was, “The children are happy!” I had not known what I would find at a school for the deaf, but I did not expect to see so much happiness, so much lively interaction, so many smiles and grins, so much joy in simple achievements.

The care and joy I found at Ephpheta are clues to the real miracle that takes place there. To be sure, it is a wonder that the deaf learn how to speak. But more fundamentally, what I witnessed at Ephpheta was a miracle of love. Jesus is present and at work today in the inexhaustible care given these deaf children and in the joy with which it is given. That the deaf speak is not a miracle of technique and technology, but a miracle of people giving their lives in loving service.

And through this miracle of loving service Jesus speaks the word “Ephphetha” to deaf Palestinian children: “Be opened,” be opened to communication with others, be opened to a full life.

Following his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January 1964, Pope Paul VI decided to establish an institute in Bethlehem for the rehabilitation of “young deaf-mutes.”

On 30 June 1971, the Sisters of Saint Dorothy and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine (PMP), with the consent of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the approval of the Holy See, undertook the foundation of the Paul VI Ephpheta Institute.

Every year Ephpheta’s Administrative Committee – consisting of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the President of PMP, the Director of our Jerusalem office, the Superior of the Sisters of Saint Dorothy and the Directrice of Ephpheta – meets to review the activities, finances and programs and to suggest recommendations

Ephpheta Institute’s operational expenses are subsidized completely by PMP, with funds obtained from CNEWA and other Catholic funding agencies.

To strengthen the sisters’ work with families, CNEWA-PMP connects the sisters with health care specialists through the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC) and educational professionals at Bethlehem University.

In cooperation with the Bethlehem Arab Society for the physically handicapped and with the support of CNEWA-PMP, the sisters established a program for the instruction of teachers at the camp school in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem.

George Martin, a frequent contributor, regularly visits the Holy Land.

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