Jo Saunders: Visiting St Joseph’s School for the Deaf
Published: May 6th, 2013
I am a teacher of the deaf at a specialist college for deaf students in the UK. I work with older students with a range of hearing losses, physical and additional needs, teaching English. Although the students come from different areas of the UK and have a diverse ethnic mix they are all supported through the health and educational provision available in the UK. Most of the students have little understanding of what it might be like for deaf children in other parts of the world, where education or equipment for deaf children is not always readily available. By setting up direct links with a deaf school in Africa my aim was to broaden their horizons.
Visiting Sierra Leone
The idea of going to Sierra Leone came about through meeting up with an old school friend. She is currently working in Sierra Leone and at Christmas she came to England. She brought presents with her including a little cloth bag made by children in a deaf school there.
I found myself using the logo on the bag to find the school on the Internet. I was surprised to find a website with lots of information about the school and a YouTube clip about raising money. At that point my interest grew and the seed was sown in my head that I might possibly visit the school. But I had never been to Africa and certainly didn’t know anything about Sierra Leone, so it still seemed a bit of a dream that I would actually do it.
A couple of days later the Batod (teacher of the deaf) magazine arrived in the post. I was amazed to see an article about the same school in Sierra Leone, St. Joseph’s School For Hearing Impaired Children, visited by a teacher of the deaf from England. That sealed my fate and I made the decision to visit there myself. From then on things seemed to fall into place almost by themselves and I booked my ticket for the Easter holidays to go to Sierra Leone and work as a volunteer for a few days at the school.
The pupils are taught in small classes, and although most students have some knowledge of African signing and gesture to support understanding, they are encouraged to use the Maternal Reflective approach to develop speech and lipreading skills. Classes are grouped according to the level of communication and ability rather than age. The formal language is English and so students learn to speak and read English in lessons. Classrooms have blackboards and most lessons that I saw involved the children watching the teacher in a formal teaching style. Equipment is limited and whilst there is a suite of computers, the school doesn’t always have electricity and internet connections are patchy.
Some students are able to sit the same examinations as mainstream pupils and the school is proud of the achievements of the deaf students, whose levels sometimes match those of mainstream hearing students. This may be partly due to the extra commitment to training that the teachers have and the longer hours that they work. However one of the first things a teacher said to me was that he hadn’t been paid by the government for 3 years. Some teachers have to work in different roles at the weekends to enable them to carry on working at the school.
Life in Sierra Leone for deaf children
Deaf and disabled children in Sierra Leone are generally kept hidden away by their families. Coming to this school would probably be the first time in their lives that the children would be able to communicate and have a peer group. The children at St. Joseph’s seemed happy, though I know that their home lives would not allow them such carefree playtime after school and chores. About a third of the students board at the school and although the boarding was basic, every child had a bed and mosquito net. This would be unlikely for most of them in their own homes. Each child has one hearing aid, which is kept at school when the children go home, for fear of it not being returned. Recently 20 hearing aids had disappeared from younger children, with the assumption that someone had taken them to sell at the market.
There are two deaf schools in Sierra Leone; this one in Makeni and another in the capital Freetown, but it is reckoned that there are many more deaf children without deaf education in the country. Teachers at St. Joseph’s have had training input from visiting teachers of the deaf and audiologists from the UK over the past decade, since the school regained the school buildings and started rebuilding after the end of the war. The University of Makeni has also been developing its first courses along with trained teachers from the school to train teachers in deaf education. However, the general level of education of teachers is limited throughout Sierra Leone and there are ongoing projects within the country to develop the education of mainstream teachers.
During my visit, there were discussions about the future of the school. The Sierra Leone government does not fund special schools, so whilst, in theory the teachers’ wages are paid, the day-to-day running of the school is financed through fundraising, which has been managed successfully so far through donations from abroad. However the future of the school is uncertain as the government policies seem to be moving more directly towards inclusion, requiring the children here to be placed in their local mainstream schools. In order for inclusion to be successful there would need to be an understanding of the support that is required to enable deaf children access to mainstream education. At the moment there does not seem to be an awareness of the issues involved. Moreover there would need to be a shift in society’s attitude towards disability and deafness.
This was my first visit to Africa. It was also my first visit to a deaf school outside the UK. It was both shocking and amazing. I was totally inspired by the teachers, the success of the school and in particular by the constant dedication of Sister Mary Sweeney who is the director of the school and has been there since the 1970s. I think it has been beneficial to my students to connect with St. Joseph’s. Whilst it was enlightening for St. Joseph’s children to make contact with other deaf children in the world, and in particular white children, who they tend to associate with being rich, it has also been interesting to see the reactions of deaf students in the UK, to learn that not everyone has access to the equipment that they have, such as hearing aids and batteries.
Jo Saunders is a teacher of the deaf at a specialist college for deaf students, Exeter Deaf Academy. She works with older students teaching English. Her visit to St Joseph’s School in Sierra Leone has inspired her and the students that she works with. Jo wrote a blog about her experience here.
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