Syria’s deaf survive against all odds

3 February 2010

Damascus – Seven years ago, Suha Sundus was registered at the state-run “Institute for Special Education for the Hearing Impaired in Damascus” (ISEHI), with the hope that she would be able to eventually join the law department at university, like many young people of her age, who have normal hearing.

However, her hope quickly evaporated as she and her parents eventually realized that the traditional teaching methods and curricula have failed in teaching her to either speak or write.

In 2005, her family removed her from the 8th grade and sent her, to the privately-owned “Society for the Welfare of the Hearing Impaired” (SWHI) in Damascus, in order that she may “re-start” her education.

“The eight years at the institute were completely useless; this is why, after I lost all hope, I joined the literacy courses”, said Suha, now 19, describing her years at the ISEHI in Damascus, one of seven public institutes in Syria specializing in teaching the hearing the impaired.

This young woman laments that the institute’s staff “did not believe in my potential and abilities and those of my peers”.

Suha was not born deaf. But she became deaf when she was a few months old, after being injected, by mistake, with high doses of Gentamicin, an antibiotic used then to treat an intestinal inflammation. Gentomicin is a member of the aminoglycosides group of medications that cause irreversible damage to the ear, and are therefore limited in use.

Suha’s mother remembers how she and her husband “tried all avenues, but were not able to save the infant from the fate of deafness”.
She, further, considers that the “institute’s poor performance has resulted in my daughter’s inability to write even a simple text message on her mobile phone”

The circumstances affecting Deeb Balah (52 years) were no better. However, through a stroke of good luck, a United Nations’ employee was instrumental in helping him, at  the age of five, to enter the “Father Andweich School”, a facility, in Baabda, near Beirut, irut,  specialized in teaching the hearing impaired.
From there, he went on to complete his advanced studies in a Norwegian institute for higher learning which enabled him to master the learning tools necessary for teaching the hearing impaired.

“Moving to that school in Beirut and later to the Norwegian institute, was like a re-birth for me. I had always wished for a world where the hearing impaired are treated with respect and not discriminated against, and I found it. In other words, respect for our learning, no pity, and no undervaluing our skills”.

While studying abroad, Deeb acquired tools that are very different from the “stultified curricula and teaching methods that are applied in Syrian schools, and which are similar to those used for normal/hearing students”.

Deeb seems older than his age due to the arduous job in a shoe store. He remembers: “From the 7th to the 10thgrade, we learnt to lip-read – learning the alphabet through the vibration of each letter and the way a letter is formed through mouth movements”.
Deeb adds with great fluency: “from the age of 13 and until 17, we learnt to write, after which I sat for the Baccalaureate exams”, three decades ago.

He explains that the dates and duration of study “were not formalized”. Each person completed each stage according to ability. So, none of the hearing impaired students graduated without fully meriting their degrees”

However, upon returning to Syria, Deeb faced many rules and regulations in a country that lacks a separate educational system for those with disabilities. This prevented him from benefiting from the experience and education he had gained abroad.

The Ministry of Education, which oversaw the process of equating degrees at the time, refused to recognize his degree because “there is no equivalent specialization in the Syrian higher education classification, and because he is hearing impaired. The Ministry of Social Affairs also refused to hire him”, says Deeb. So he had to find work at his dad’s modest shoe repair store.

The Ministry of Education denies that it had closed its doors in Deeb’s face. Mr. Suleiman Al Khatib, the former head of the degree equivalency committee and who has been an employee of the Ministry of Education for 27 years, says: “ It is impossible for the ministry to refuse to equate the degrees earned by those with a hearing impairment or any other type of disability. In fact, the ministry is proud and supportive of such individuals”. He adds: “It is also impossible for the ministry to refuse such equivalency because of the lack of a similar specialization in the Syrian higher education classification; such degrees are equated with the closest specialization to the degree”.

The higher education degree equivalency department was moved to the Ministry of Higher Education in 2001.

As for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, Mr. Imad El-Ezz, the former head of Social Services, insists that the ministry’s regulations “are completely free of any clause preventing the hearing impaired from taking up teaching posts or from general employment. The fact that the art teacher in the ISEHI is herself deaf, is enough proof”. El-Ezz assumes that there is “another reason behind the refusal to hire Deeb”, mentioning that “this is a very old issue”. But he refused to elaborate.

Several education experts and many of the hearing impaired who spoke to this reporter, think that the poor performance of the schools and institutes for the hearing impaired is due to “the stultified curricula and systems, as well as the poorly trained teachers responsible for the education of this sector of society”. This problem is exemplified in Suha foregoing her dream and in Deeb’s inability to transfer his skills and expertise to his peers.

The latest statistics issued by the Central Statistics Office for the year 2005, puts the number of the hearing impaired in Syria at 6602; 1408 of which are in Damascus and its environs. However, “there are unofficial statistics that estimate the numbers to be much higher than the official figures, due to the absence of advanced statistical sampling and surveying methods”, states Haytham Daou, a sign language expert who often cooperates with the government sector.
He asserts that “the number of the hearing impaired officially registered in the private Society for the Welfare of the Hearing Impaired in Damascus alone has reached 2500 cases last year”.

Daou hypothesizes that “the low standard of education available to the hearing impaired students is due to the lack of specialized curricula for this sector, and to the subsequent application of normal curricula (for hearing students) in the schools for the hearing impaired”. Daou is an expert who has certification from the Arab Union of Welfare Societies for the Hearing Impaired. He adds that Syria is “one of the few Arab countries that have not yet adopted a special curriculum for the hearing impaired”.

Teaching Staff .. No Special Training

A hearing impaired student has to filter through two levels of communication to reach a particular piece of information. This reporter has observed that, with the exception of primary level, teachers have to ask for the assistance of sign language interpreters who, sometimes, wrongly translate some of the scientific content of the curriculum. These observations were made during normal school days at the institute (from 8 to 18 April, 2008).

This method leads to a significant loss of communication between teacher and student, according to Dr. Raghed Haroun, a psychologist. “Hearing impaired children are always suspicious of others, assuming that they are plotting against them. It is, therefore, essential for such children to be made to feel that their teacher is similar to them and understands their language”.

Several teachers in the institute refused to blame the students’ disability for the lack of communication in the classroom; they, actually, emphasized the ability of hearing impaired students to interact in class. Mr. Baher Ne’meh, who has a degree in Mathematics from Damascus University, says: “My students are extremely capable of understanding the material; their degrees and my previous experience with them have proven this ability, and I refuse to accept any accusations leveled at either students or teachers”.

The teacher of French language, Rabab El-Hafi, considers that “the nature of the subject reduces the communication levels with the students, especially with regard to the English and French languages, that require, by their very nature, an ability to hear and to speak”. She has, therefore, requested that the curriculum be “modified to better suit the nature of the disability”.

The ISEHI in Damascus has 56 teachers (2007-2008), 21 of whom are delegated from the Ministry of Education for the various areas of specialty. However, according to Sawsan Rizk, the institute’s director, they are unequipped to deal with those suffering from hearing impairments. As for the remaining teachers, they are sign language interpreters delegated from the Ministry of Social Affairs; 24 are holders of a secondary degree, 2 of an intermediate degree, while the rest hold degrees varying from intermediate schools and universities.

Dado, a trainer in sign language interpretation with the public sector states that “teachers have been enrolled in sign language interpretation courses, but not in a sufficient fashion”. He considers that “the problems with relaying information to students with hearing impairments is not only due to having to deal with two communication levels; it is also due to the poor quality of interpretation”. Also, “interpreters consider that they have acquired all necessary knowledge regarding sign language, and feel no need to upgrade their skills and knowledge any further, despite the continually improved methodologies and techniques for dealing with the hearing impaired”. This results in “the hearing impaired student being at the mercy of bad interpretation, and having to exert extra effort to understand what the interpreters are attempting to convey. In addition, the students face problems with having to re-learn the meaning of half of the signs that they had learnt from another interpreter the previous year”, Dado adds.

However, this problem with the discrepancy between the signs that interpreters use has been “reduced, somewhat, with the introduction of a unified dictionary of sign language in the Arab world, in the year 2000”, Dado states. Furthermore, he considers that this dictionary may “cause an important and beneficial break-through for hearing impaired students, although time will be needed to demonstrate its full positive effects”.

The Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for the Disabled in Jordan, Amal Nahhas, who worked for three years on the development of the Aleppo’s Institute for the Hearing Disabled, calls for a revolution in the Syrian teaching methods and the application of curricula tailored to the hearing disabled, as is the case in Jordan, for example”.

Nahas emphasizes the importance of accurate diagnosis as well as graduated teaching methods. “A hearing impaired child begins at the nursery levels where a program is developed for him or her depending on the severity of the impairment (partial/total)”, Nahas explains. She emphasized that “early diagnosis leads to early intervention and treatment, and therefore, to the correct choice of hearing aid, which is supposed to be replaced every six months”.

As for the level following nursery; the curricula for the hearing impaired are the same as for those with normal hearing in both Jordan and Syria. The exams are also the same, with the addition of an extra half an hour for the hearing impaired.

Nahas believes that the “difference lies in the experience and the techniques used to convey information, as some of the teachers in the Syrian schools for the hearing disabled have been teaching for over 35 years, while there is a real need for younger teaching staff with proper training that reflects the advances being made in the teaching methodologies for the hearing impaired”.

Nahas also said in an interview at her office in Amman that schools and institutes for the hearing impaired in Syria “suffer from a lack of audiologists; therefore, Ear, Nose and Throat specialists are often relied upon instead”.

In Syria, the academic year for the hearing impaired is required to be of the same length as that for students with normal hearing. However, in Jordan, a hearing impaired student may complete a scholastic year curriculum in two or more years, according to his ability to learn and develop. Therefore, such a student may graduate from school at the age of twenty or twenty five.

The former director of social services in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, Imad El-Ezz, does not deny “the poor performance of the teaching staff in the ISEHI in Damascus, and the importance of the information being transmitted from the specialized teacher directly to the student”. However, El-Ezz attributes the problem to the root cause: The Ministry of Higher Education. While he calls on the ministry to “train university staff to enable them to deal with people who suffer from disabilities in a proper and scientific manner,” he notes that this “has started to happen”.  He added: “the idea that a teacher may one day soon be able to convey information directly to the student is not far fetched”.

The head of the Special Education department in the Ministry of Higher Education, Suhad Al-Mulli, admits that none of the five public universities in Syria have a specialized college or department specializing in teaching communication skills to those with special needs. However, she expects that “things will change by the year 2010, as a new degree has been created in this field at Damascus University”.

Until recently, “we only had a Master’s degree in language and speech therapy, and a Master’s degree in special education. Graduates with these degrees are only qualified to work and run special therapy clinics, but not to teach in schools”, according to Al-Mulli.A Particular Need

Experts in Education for the hearing impaired, such as Nahas and Dado, agree that there are essential differences in the teaching methods for this group. Dado says: “While it is true that the hearing impaired possess great abilities, they are not equal to those with normal hearing; this is why they need specialized curricula that address their special needs. They also need to learn sign language, particularly physiological and teleological terms”.

However, the director of the Society for General Good and Development project, Ali Sheikh Kareem, holds a different position on the issue. The director of the only school in Damascus with a license to teach the hearing impaired asserts that “the hearing impaired student is able to concentrate for over two hours at a stretch, if the delivery of the material is not boring”. He adds: “In our school, we have been successful in educating hearing impaired students, since we started in 2006. We began with teaching literacy to seven students, before they moved on to the baccalaureate system – scientific section”.

According to Kareem, the society discovered that “what is needed is the addition of textbooks, specialized in the reconstruction of the language, to the primary level books, in order that students can later engage in higher education learning in their own language curricula”.

Kareem further attributes the “illiteracy of the students of ISEHI  to the failure in teaching the students the proper meaning of words; for example, such students are taught the meaning of the phrase “she went” without pointing out the gender reference (indicated by the addition of a “t” sound at the end of the verb in the Arabic language) as is necessary in Arabic. Another example is the lack of clarification of the difference between the verbs “went” and “walked” which are sometimes used interchangeably in colloquial Arabic, but which actually mean different things.

However, Rizk, the director of the ISEHI, feels that the institute has started improving two years ago. She complains that the institute is “obliged to promote some students despite their poor academic performance, which would be primarily due to a poor foundation in previous years”. She adds that, today, the institute relies on “more effective teaching aids (an example would be diagrams that clarify the meaning of words rather than textual explanations), placing the right person in the right job, and concentrating on speech lessons”. She considers that the solution is “not in changing the curricula, but in adapting it to suit the hearing impaired, and in not denying them the chance of studying in Syrian universities”. According to her, “adaptation is the partial change in the curriculum to suit the comprehension needs of those with a hearing impairment and to take into consideration the extent to which sign language is able to convey information”.

The Ministry of Education fully supports Rizk’s stance, particularly in light of the international policy to integrate children with special needs with normal children. In fact, Hussam al-Khalaf, a member of the Special Education Department in the Ministry of Education, felt that the introduction of special curricula was unlikely in view of the drive towards an integration policy”. He pointed to the “need to adapt current curricula to fit in with the needs of the hearing impaired”.

Khalaf indicated a “plan to adapt the curriculum for students with special needs, with the help of external experts, due to the inadequate number of local hearing impairment experts, in Syria. However, this is supposed to take place following the development and improvement of the educational system and the reduction of the too large curriculum”. Khalaf, however, could not give a time frame for the completion of this project.

Tests that Confirm a Hypotheses

This reporter attempted to evaluate the educational level of 15 students, both intermediate and secondary students, from the ISEHI (ages between 13 and 18). The evaluation included tests to measure the level of this sample in basic reading, writing and mathematics, and to compare these levels with those of students with normal hearing. The tests were conducted under the supervision of four veteran teachers with an average of 25 years of experience in teaching basic education to students with normal hearing.

The tests were reviewed by the sign language expert, Haytham Dado, to show the degree of disadvantage the hearing impaired suffer, as well as the disadvantage of enforcing an integrated curricula (for both those with normal hearing and the hearing impaired).

According to I’tidal Abu Harb, one of the teachers who set the test questions, the results showed “a clear weakness in the ability of the hearing impaired students in writing and reading”. In assessing their answers, the teachers concluded that their level does not go beyond the second grade (primary), as compared to students with normal hearing who approached the levels expected of high school graders. As for mathematics, the highest grade was achieved by Manar Al-Ali (16 years) from the 9th grade, but the result indicated that Manal was of an equivalent level in mathematics to a child in the third grade; i.e. a student of nine years or so.

Undeserved Degrees

On reviewing the results of the tests, Dado, the sign language expert, confirmed the Abu-Harb’s findings: “I reaffirm the teacher Abu Harb’s findings. I would also like to direct a question to those in charge: How is it possible for hearing disabled students to pass the intermediate and secondary exams, and get their degrees, while being of an academic level equivalent to a student in the primary school, especially as the examination questions are the same as required by the integrated curriculum”?

It is worthwhile to point out that the number of hearing impaired students that sat for the intermediate government exam for the academic year 2007-2008 was 11 students; they all passed. In the previous year, 15 out of the 16 students, who had sat for the official exam, succeeded in passing the examination. Three students who for the secondary exams (12th grade – literary section), also passed their exams, according to the Ministry of Education records.

Dado concludes that these “illogical” results can be attributed to the role the exam supervisors play. “Every time they assist a hearing impaired student to gain an undeserved degree, they are adding an obstacle to this group of students, and are giving the Ministry of Social Affairs the excuse to avoid any improvement, as they would argue that most hearing impaired students manage to pass the official examinations”.

However, a high level source in the Ministry of Education, who prefers to remain anonymous, affirms the “integrity of the official exams for the hearing impaired”, and finds it “unlikely that the supervisors help the students as they would be unable to give them the answers because of their ignorance of sign language, as well as of the subject matter”.

On being asked about the possibility that proctors may have written the answers to questions on the blackboard, he answered: ”This is not possible, as we employ supervisors responsible for the supervisors”,  adding that “the only advantages given to hearing impaired students is an extra 15 minutes, as well as the translation of the questions by an expert in sign language”.

The director of the ISEHI feels that the hearing impaired are better able to succeed than their pees, despite exam results that confirm their mediocre educational standard.

Rizk attributes the success rates for the hearing impaired in the official exams to their “visual memory and their ability to memorize lessons visually, in contrast to their hearing counterparts who rely on learning by rote, which results in forgetting the material directly after the exam”.

Dado refutes this opinion, and is of the belief that “visual memory is available to all people who can see, whether hearing impaired or not. It cannot be the reason for passing examinations and gaining degrees”.

The integrity of the official exams is an issue that rankles with the seven hearing impaired students who succeeded in passing the official exams, and who were interviewed by Syria News. They stressed that their success was “the direct result of their hard work, and that the supervisors did not show any sympathy to their disability, and treated them like normal people who are not in need of pity”.

However, one of the students who sat the intermediate official exams for the academic year (2006-2007) refuted the claims of his colleagues, and confirmed that the supervisor played an important role in their success. The student, who prefers to remain anonymous, said: “many supervisors feel sympathy for us, and write the answers to questions on the blackboard after getting them from the subject teacher or from one of the students. They make sure to tell us not to inform anyone of their help, as our degrees may be revoked if we are found out”.

Other Considerations

Integrating curricula, and the controversy surrounding it, are not the only problems facing the hearing impaired; several of them do not even get the chance to register in the institute. The ISEHI had 479 students for the academic year 2007-2008, but there was a waiting list of around 45 prospective students who were unable to join due to the lack of places.

The former director of Social Services in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, Mr. Imad El-Ezz, admits that: “we do suffer from an increase in students and a lack in the number of schools available to them. However, we are in the process of overcoming this crisis, as we have opened two new schools in Suweida and Dara’a (South), and the construction of a school for the hearing impaired is underway in the environs of Damascus”.

With regards to the difficulties faced in dealing with the families of the hearing impaired, the director of the institute  says that 70% of “families do not have faith in the ability of a hearing impaired person to learn in an academic setting. Since most of them are illiterate, they prefer to have them learn a manual trade”.

She adds: “We spend a lot of effort in encouraging the parents to cooperate with us. For that, we have also recorded speech classes on compact discs (CD’s) with the objective of lending them to the parents. We had hoped that they may be able to learn sign language and speech lessons, but were discouraged by the lack of interest”.

One student’s mother states: “I don’t know why my daughter failed, despite my efforts to help her study,” but she quickly adds: “I honestly do not have the energy required to help her with her studies. I believe that the most important role for a girl, in life, is as a wife”.

The father of Bashar, a student who had failed 6th grade, attributed his son’s failure to his preference for the tailoring profession over school. He encouraged his son’s preference, especially as “the hearing impaired have no hope of getting any benefit from academic learning.” Bashar’s father did not learn sign language, and is unable to communicate with his son, except through the mother.

The mother of 4th grader, Maram, said that “daily problems overshadow the education of our normal children. It is even more difficult to pay attention to those who are hearing impaired, especially as the family is facing a decline in both its financial and emotional wellbeing”.

The compulsory education law in Syria, law number 35, issued on the 16th of August 1981, enforces penalties on parents who refrain from sending their children to schools, but it does not contain any clause pertaining to children with special needs. Its second clause states that it is obligatory for parents of Syrian children (male and female), aged between 6 and 12 years, to send their children to primary schools.

An official decision, dated the 13th of October, 2001, number (3/4)543/2640 talks about the necessity of accepting some children with disabilities within government schools, in accordance with the objective of implementing the integration policy that is internationally adopted.

Shining Example

Ibrahim Al-Kadri is often sited as a model of an exceptional hearing impaired student. His name comes up as proof of the quality of teaching in the official schools for the hearing impaired. Al-Kadri achieved an average of 189 points out of a possible 290 points in the official intermediate exams.

Al-Kadri’s mother is adamant that this achievement owes little to the official teaching methods. “I used to help him with his homework, and repeat his lessons to him every day, as a hearing impaired child forgets easily. I had discussed this with him earlier, and we had agreed to overcome this obstacle by increasing his daily hours of study, and by continuous preparation. I also helped him with his speech lessons and his lip reading assignments”, she adds.

At this point, Ibrahim intervenes to add: “I do not deny that I learnt a lot at the institute, but had it not been for my mother’s help, I would have been just like the others”.

Ibrahim’s skill in lip reading allowed him to enter the industrial vocational secondary school (for those with normal hearing), to study Informatics. He is preparing to sit for the official secondary exams next year, as well as working as a computer instructor in a computer center for the disabled in the Hamish area, in Damascus.

But for Hope..

The hearing impaired students are prevented from approaching the academic standards of their peers by three main problems: curricula, teaching methods, and lack of cooperation from the parents. Despite these obstacles, the new generation of the hearing impaired are  hopeful that they can be effective members of society and can realize their dreams not like Suha and Deeb.


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