By Nirmi Vitarana
Colombo, May 5 (newsin.asia): “Of 50 students who faced the Ordinary Level exam, all 50 failed. This is the plight of deaf children who sit for public exams. The system must change,” said Kelum Samarawickrama, who is a professional sign language interpreter and an ardent advocate of the rights of the hearing impaired.
Samarawickrama made this observation in a social media post on February 29, the day following the release of the G.C.E (Government Certificate in Education) Ordinary Level examination results in Sri Lanka.
His reaction to the examination outcomes of hearing impaired students rekindled my frustration at my own hearing impaired cousin’s struggle at educational attainment even as he was a highly intelligent person.
I reached out to Kelum to better understand the problem. He explained that the reference to “fifty failed students” was a metaphor to illustrate the dire circumstances of hearing impaired students who faced examinations.
Kelum is an exceptional sign language interpreter and a diploma holder in sign language from the National Institute of Education. More importantly he is enriched with life experiences of what it is to be born into poverty and to deaf parents in a rural setting in Sri Lanka. His life trajectory and its implications for the status of Sri Lanka’s social justice would need to be written about later.
The system change Kelum calls for, transcends the system of education to the wider question of the treatment of children and adults with hearing impairment.
Let me digress in order to set the context for those unfamiliar with Sri Lanka’s educational milestones. A student would pass the Grade Ten Ordinary Level examination if he or she obtains 40 marks out of 100 in Sinhala language and Mathematics, which are two mandatory subjects out of a total of ten subjects. The average age of a student facing the examination would be 15-16 years. There is the option to write answers in any of the three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English.
While this piece is not a detailed analysis of education policies in Sri Lanka, references to select policies is important to contextualize the discussion. Sri Lanka provides free universal education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. This is mandated by the Education Policy of 1948. Free education for all is a key contributor to Sri Lanka’s impressive human development indices.
But why do children with hearing impairment fall through the cracks and not find an honorable mention in the impressive examination statistics? This is where the ‘system’ is flawed and needs scrutiny. Access to education for children with hearing impairment and children with visual impairment was initiated by Christian missionaries as far back as 1912. At present, there are twenty six such ‘special schools’ across the various districts.
For many decades children with hearing impairment would either have the opportunity to enroll in a special school, or be integrated into a special unit in a mainstream school or not have access to education at all. Often in the absence of qualified sign language teachers students would merely mark time.
Then in 1997, the Compulsory Education Act made education mandatory for all children in the age category of 5 – 14 years. This measure was partly in response to the Sri Lankan government’s commitment to the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education and to ensure that children with disabilities got equal opportunity for educational enrolment.
This was a significant milestone where children with disabilities were categorized as children with Special Education Needs (SEN). The government’s commitment also led to the General Educational Reforms of 1997 which impacted the quality and delivery of education for children with SEN including reforms in the teacher training curriculum and referrals of children with disability to Special Needs Education. More recently Sri Lanka got the National Action Plan on Disability (2013) and the National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (2017) which prescribes measures for inclusive education.
However, more than two decades later why do we witness failure of children with hearing impairment at government competitive examinations? If at the finishing line hearing impaired students demonstrate utter failure at exams then is it not necessary to scrutinize the starting line? Do children with hearing impairment receive equal opportunities at the starting line and what might be some defects in the education system that strips hard of hearing children of their right to an education?
This discussion will attempt to highlight three possible settings and related barriers. Firstly, let us consider the structure of a ‘Special Education Unit’ and secondly, a mainstream classroom that integrates deaf or hard of hearing students.
In the former set up, children with varying types of disability are clustered into a ‘Special Education Unit’ and often assigned one teacher with some training in special education. This set up is flawed because children with varying disabilities require varying accommodations. Accommodations here refers to modifications of the norms and adjustments to the way educators teach. A teacher or teaching assistant may not be proficient in sign language or total communication which is a combination of sign, lip movement, oral, auditory, visual.
In the context of a mainstream classroom where deaf and hard of hearing students are integrated there is pressure on the teacher to accommodate 35 to 40 students. This challenge is further increased by the strain of coaching in a wide spectrum of subjects with extensive syllabi and the pressure of competitive parents adding to the strain. Against this situation teachers cannot and do not accommodate coaching techniques that would respond to the needs of a deaf or a hard of hearing student.
The third option for hearing impaired students would be special schools designated to deliver education to deaf and hard of hearing students. The twenty six schools spread across the country use sign language in Tamil and Sinhala depending on the demography of the school’s location.
However, evidence shows that even students from dedicated special schools educated by teachers capable in sign language and total communication continue to fail.
Sign language and spoken language cannot be compared. What is transferred by mainstream educationists using spoken language would not result in the same cognizance when communicated by sign language. And in Sri Lanka, sign language is limited in lexicon and diction and restricts the ability to teach concepts and theories.
More localized research would be instrumental in dissecting the capabilities and weaknesses of using sign language in Sri Lanka and help guide improvements in educating deaf and hard of hearing students.
As Kelum’s message invokes, a system change is necessary. A system is defined simply as an interconnected network. What is discussed here as barriers clearly spell out that educational reforms alone cannot change the opportunities available to hearing impaired students. The network of practices and established structures must change. There should be a systemic change to give hearing paired students’ equal opportunities at exams. This must ideally include the way in which educational milestones are defined and measured.
Sri Lanka has attempted education reforms and there are action plans to give educational opportunities to children with disabilities, but these policies and action plans become meaningless because they do not translate into changes on the ground.
(Nirmi Vitarana is an independent advocate for social justice and rights of persons with disability)