Mandalay School for the Deaf – One Woman’s Kindness Transforms the Lives of Deaf Burmese Children

Published: Dec 7th, 2015

Outside the entrance of the Mandalay School for the Deaf

The Mandalay School for the Deaf, Burma

You may not know about the Mandalay School for the Deaf, but this Burmese institution is a star burning very brightly for deaf Burmese children, whose lives have been transformed thanks to the kindness and love of one woman 50 years ago.

With over 200 deaf students, this school, taken over by the Government in 1978, is going from strength to strength to raise awareness of deafness in Burma whilst offering invaluable support, advice and hearing aid care to children of all ages. The two-storey building stands proudly in the community of Mandalay, which is remarkable considering it started merely as a one-to-one class in the home of a local British expat, Sandy Smith back in 1962. Her passion for the education of deaf children and the wonderful legacy she has left in Mandalay cannot possibly be described fully in words, but I will do my best.

An Unexpected Beginning – ‘Mrs Smith’s Shack’

Photograph of Mandalay School founder, Sandy Smith

Mandalay School founder, Sandy Smith

The humble origins of Mandalay School date back to the arrival of British couple, Sandy and David Blakeway-Smith, who arrived in Mandalay, Burma in the early 1960s. While David began teaching at a small College, his wife, Sandy – a trained teacher of the deaf – made it her mission to provide some support to deaf and hard of hearing children in the local area.

At the time only one school for deaf children existed in Burma. This was located in Rangoon, over 450 miles away from Mandalay. Sandy decided the best course of action would be to hand out several small pamphlets advertising her voluntary services to families in the local area.

“Armed with 300 or so of these pamphlets, she cycled around Mandalay and distributed them to all and sundry,” says David, his words sparkling with admiration. Within a fortnight, a Burmese lady arrived at the Smith’s home with her two young deaf children and they became Sandy’s first students.

Very quickly the numbers of deaf children grew, and Sandy moved her services to new premises in the heart of the city. With the support of the Anglican Diocesan School, she was given the use of a little school, which she kitted out with a blackboard, chairs and desks. ‘Mrs Smith’s Shack’, as it was fondly known, was a small flame of hope for the young deaf community, growing stronger with every new student.

The Burmese Dream Ends

As fate would have it, Sandy would not get to see her little school grow beyond 27 students. In 1964, following a military coup, the Burmese government enforced a policy to eject all foreigners from the country. Passports were stamped with ‘Leaving Burma for good’, and all David and Sandy could do was to leave behind her beautiful school, and say goodbye to the deaf children whose lives she’d touched.

Unable to make contact with the children, or anyone in Burma, due to the country’s strict military rule, David and Sandy continued with their lives back in England – never forgetting what they had left behind. In 2013, Sandy sadly passed away. She never did learn the fate of her students, and how her dedication, and simple act of kindness had created the foundations of a blossoming body of support and education for deaf Burmese children.

Mandalay School for the Deaf – A New Beginning

Following his wife’s death, David was determined to find out what had happened to Sandy’s school. He discovered, to his amazement, that despite the impact of the strict regime, the school had moved in 1978 to a two storey building of its own. In 1981 the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement marked International Day for Disabled People by taking responsibility for the school. It now has over 200 hundred students.

Unfortunately, there seemed to be no recognition of Sandy and her efforts in the community all those years ago, so David booked a flight to Burma. His visit to the school was a bitter sweet pilgrimage. Whilst it was marvellous and heart-warming for David to see how far it had come, it was saddening to see that the great majority of deaf children were still lacking valuable support and aids.

Determined to continue Sandy’s work, David returned to England on a mission to raise the standard of health care and education for the deaf in Myanmar (as Burma is now called) – particularly for the students at the Mandalay School for the Deaf. His work over the past two years has resulted in the establishment of a new Equal Partnership between the Union of the Republic of Myanmar and the UK Government. He has also returned to Mandalay with two voluntary NHS audiologists, testing deaf children and fitting hearing aids.

With the help of dedicated experts, such as Dr Robin Youngs, an ENT surgeon at the NHS Gloucester Hospital, David is in the early stages of a long-term project that aims to further Sandy’s dedication to the young deaf community in Mandalay. His registered charity, Mandalay School for the Deaf is raising funds to pay for hearing aids and for the audiologist’s airfares – all those involved in the project are doing so voluntarily and in their spare time.

Ultimately, what David hopes for is a future for Burmese deaf children full of opportunity, prosperity and happiness. Where this will take him and the dedicated volunteers over the next few years, no one can possibly predict. One guarantee, however, is, wherever in the world David may be, he can rest assured Sandy’s legacy will continue burning very brightly in Mandalay as a powerful symbol of hope for deaf children everywhere.

By Tamara Marshall.

David says:

“The story [of Sandy and her school] is so amazing, especially how we learned about the new school building and everything else just two days after dear Sandy died.

“What an amazing person Sandy was and what a difference she has made to hundreds and hundreds of Burmese deaf children’s lives. We all like to think we can make a difference in the short time we are on this earth; well, she certainly did! The most amazing thing of all is that she actually married me.”

David with students at Mandalay School for the Deaf-min

David (centre) surrounded by pupils and teachers at the Mandalay School for the Deaf

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3 Responses to “Mandalay School for the Deaf – One Woman’s Kindness Transforms the Lives of Deaf Burmese Children”

  1. michael theobald says:

    Some people go about their admirable work quietly and effectively and Sandy was one of these people. Her story is both a joy and sad to read.
    Let this story with such great achievements in difficult circumstances be a hope for all those people who think about and actively help others less fortunate than themselves.

  2. MCB says:

    David Blakeway-Smith died suddenly on Friday 23 December, 2016 in Worcestershire.

  3. Aung Myoe says:

    Hi,

    My name is Aung Myoe from Finland. I am 28 years old. I moved to Finland from Burma since I was Young. I am now second year student at Humanity University of Applied Science , BA degree in finnish sign language. During school years, we have an opportunity to go abroad and learn the other sign Language and culture. I am very interesting in Burmese sign language and culture and I would like to make a reserve about Burmese sign language for my thesis. The period of internship is still a choice. I speak finnish, finnish sign language , English, Burmese, Karen, kayah, little thai and German, so I can also help them in language teaching if in needed. I am very looking forward to hear from you soon. Regards, Aunt Myoe

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