Aliya Gulamani: Teaching Deaf Children in Sri Lanka

Aliya GulamaniOn a day to day basis, people make many decisions. How many sugars shall I put in my tea? Shall I meet so and so for lunch today? What shall I do this evening? But sometimes, there comes the big decisions. The ones you make that permanently shape your life in a new way and after which you are never quite the same afterwards.

In the summer of 2011 I made a big decision. I decided to go abroad to Sri Lanka and work at a Deaf School. This decision came about after seeing a poster describing the amazing work done by SL Volunteers and the opportunities they set up for graduates to work in various areas in Sri Lanka. Something inside clicked when I saw that poster. I was in my last month of my final year at Goldsmiths, studying English and Drama. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do next and felt that I should travel and work abroad – see the world, meet people and spread my wings a little.

I got in touch with SL Volunteers to find out more. Lucy Nightingale, the Project Director, met me to explain the different projects that SL Volunteers run. Whilst they all sounded amazing – working in a special needs centre, teaching English at orphanages and schools, sports coaching, psychology assistant courses – I felt that as a Deaf person, I wanted to do something where I could completely be a part of and access another community. I spoke to a close friend and exceptional professional, Sophie Allen, who had worked in Sri Lanka in a range of Deaf Schools and was subsequently fluent in Sri Lankan Sign Language. Together we approached Lucy with the idea of setting up a Deaf School Project – where volunteers could work in Deaf Schools in Sri Lanka, teaching a range of topics. Though it took a few months to get the ball rolling, eventually the project was finalised. In January 2012, I would be going to The Ceylon School for the Deaf (TCSD) based in Ratmalana to teach Deaf children English.

A Passion for Learning

It is perhaps my own experience of education that significantly influenced this decision. As a child and a young adult I adored education. I loved learning and I still do. I’m currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing and am contemplating undertaking a PhD in a few years time. Learning, for me, is something I am truly passionate about. I had never really considered the path of teaching however, but as one of the eldest children in large family (I’m a second child of six), I felt, perhaps, a natural confidence in this role.

Aliya Deaf SchoolThough Sophie had taught me Sri Lankan Sign Language before my arrival, I was unprepared for the fluid sign language used by some teachers and pupils alike at TCSD. I remember introducing myself to the class and trying to remember how to say ‘My name is…’ As I was given a tour of the school and met all the lovely children, I felt extremely nervous about conducting my first lesson and slightly worried that it would all fail horribly. But as I would soon see, I had no reason to be.

The Vice Principal – who was in charge of allocating which classes I would be teaching – had put me with the older classes with the most advanced pupils. This was a really good decision, because, whilst I had some knowledge of Sri Lankan Sign Language, I was in no way fluent and would need to work with students who understood English so that in a way, we could teach each other. The older students were absolutely fantastic. As I taught them English, they taught me Sri Lankan Sign Language for these words and so through our conversations and lessons, my knowledge of Sri Lankan Sign Language significantly expanded.

Learning the Language

I then began to work with other classes. Eventually, as I became quite fluent in Sri Lankan Sign Language, I began to work with younger children and I had now the confidence to conduct my lessons with them. Of course, as expected, it never did go completely smoothly. I remember one incident, when a previous teacher came into my favourite class (11B), to say hello. When he left, they told me who he was and tried to explain his new job. As they tried to sign it their language I thought it meant something else and would mimic what I thought it was and they laughed! I was completely wrong. After about ten minutes of gestures, communication and much laughter I finally got it (he was a courier)!

There were other setbacks too – as I wasn’t an official member of staff I was never assigned a particular class or schedule. This meant that every morning I would come in and receive my rota on the day. This subsequently made it difficult to plan lessons in advance, as naturally, each class had different levels of abilities. Furthermore, I later learnt that for three weeks in March lessons would be completely cancelled because of preparation for Sports Day – Sporting activities are a huge deal in Sri Lanka. Then of course, there was the cultural element of it – there is a sort of laid back attitude in Asian and African countries, which is very different to the rapid movements in the West. Adapting to this was initially frustrating as I was used to having things planned in advance and being quite organised. However, as time went by I soon adapted to this way of life and found ways around the initial hurdles.

The children at the school were wonderful to work with and I taught a range of lessons – all with the intention of teaching them how to write and use the English language. I eventually created a portfolio of different topics, which could be adapted for classes of different abilities, along with individual classroom forms and evaluation progress reports, which I could regularly update to keep track of their progress. I also began training the other volunteers to work alongside me at the Deaf School, a mixture of both hearing and deaf volunteers, which was brilliant.

Being a Role Model

As well as working at the school, I also met other Deaf people in the country.  I found that whilst there was a strong Deaf community in Sri Lanka, there were quite a few obstacles for Deaf people. Very few Deaf people have been to University in Sri Lanka. Deaf people rarely go on to study A-Levels and most have to go straight into employment as access isn’t readily available in further education. Deaf people are not allowed to drive. Many of the Deaf students said to me, they’d rather marry a Deaf partner as “hearing people just cannot understand.”

AliyaCloser to where I was working, whilst the school had some great teachers who were committed to working with the Deaf children, not all of the teachers could sign. This meant that Deaf children whose first language was sign language felt that they were missing out considerably. One boy said to me, that because his teachers cannot sign he “cannot learn as well as the other boys who use oral communication.”  The students were absolutely astonished by my own achievements; that I had a degree, that I was going to undertake a Masters and that I had travelled extensively and worked abroad. They were astonished in the sense, that they didn’t somehow realise that all of this was possible for them too, that they too, could achieve their own ambitions however high they were.

There are no easy solutions to the problem that Deaf people face in Sri Lanka. Progress takes time, commitment and effort and I feel that this can happen via two main fields: activism and education. Working in Sri Lanka I heard of a Deaf organisation trying to promote change and improvement – these Deaf organisations need support and encouragement – so that they can make changes and create opportunities. These Deaf organisations need more publicity, funding and promotion so that they can continue to represent and address the needs of the Sri Lankan Deaf community.

I also feel that education is important, giving Deaf children and adults information and knowledge which they can use to create their own opportunities.  That’s why, even though I returned from Sri Lanka more than six months ago, I’m still a part of SL Volunteers and particularly of the Deaf Schools Project. With Lucy and Sophie, I want the Deaf Schools Project to continue to run, to provide Sri Lankan Deaf people with role models, resources, knowledge and information to allow them to make their own progress in the world.

This experience has also had a significant influence on my future ambitions. Before I left for Sri Lanka I wasn’t entirely sure of the path I wanted to blaze through; now I have a few ideas. I know I want to work abroad again – the experience of working in a different country is completely rich and amazing. You learn so many new things, meet so many wonderful people and discover so much. The second is that I’m interested in teaching – when I finish my Masters I’m hoping to teach Creative Writing to young Deaf children as well as continuing to be involved in teaching projects abroad.

And inside – though I don’t have the words adequate enough to express: at the root of me, I have something I’ve never had before. It’s almost as if I gave a little bit of my heart to Sri Lanka and got a piece of it in return. That’s why going to Sri Lanka and doing what I did out there is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Aliya is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. She volunteered as part of a Deaf School project in Sri Lanka with SL Volunteers. The experience affected and changed her deeply and she now hopes to work abroad again. She is interested in teaching Creative Writing to young Deaf children as well as being involved in teaching projects abroad. She likes world cinema, psychology, politics, literature, theatre, running and writing.

2 thoughts on "Aliya Gulamani: Teaching Deaf Children in Sri Lanka"

  1. Farah says:

    I really enjoy reading your experience .I wish to Study sign language …do u think it will be easy thanks

  2. My name is Samer Alhusni and I am 18 years old. I am Deaf person and I live in Amman, Jordan. I was studying in the high school in As Salt, Jordan , that is private school. I was learning languages English and Arabic in my school. I always helps Deaf chlidren in my school and I am interesting working with Deaf Children but Now I like searching Google about working for Deaf children Abroad country. I found “Teaching Deaf children in Sri Lanka” that is great and I am interesting it.
    I am wanting working with Teaching Deaf children in Sri Lanka.

    I hope you will able for me working Teaching Deaf children in Sri Lanka.

    Samer Alhusni

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