When a bunch of kids who had never seen the blue sky or the sun light sang the children’s nursery rhyme “Nil Ahas Thale Agei” I couldn’t stop thinking about the irony trapped in that situation. “Was ‘life’ mocking those children,” I thought to my self, those children who had been gifted with eyes but were not able to see? Or was ‘life’ mocking us, people who had been gifted with eyes, but nevertheless behave blindly concerning every important matter in life? A visit to the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind did not help me to find any answers for those questions that were simmering in my head. Yet that experience taught me that one doesn’t need eyes to see, and that as long as you have a heart to feel, you are far away from blindness.
When Daily Mirror arrived at the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind in Ratmalana, we were late. To welcome our lateness, we were greeted with groups of children dressed in oriental band costumes who were walking away after performing to the present media personnel. Partially blind Students were leading away completely blind students very carefully: they were holding each other’s hands while depending on each other to guide them in the correct path. Very carefully, they stepped on their paths and walked slowly along the familiar corridors of their school, as if the path ahead of them was clear and decorated with bright burning sun light instead of the black darkness.
Soon we arrived at their classrooms. The science lab was open and there were a few students seated and standing next to tables, while trying to learn their science lessons. Two or three boys were carefully touching human body parts made of plastic and trying to feel them. “They are trying to learn the different parts of the human body, since they cannot see with their eyes, they try to touch and learn things through feeling them,” their science teacher explained to us. One boy was touching a plastic sculpture of a brain while another boy was examining the sculpture of a plastic eye. It was not only concerning the human body that these students were given science lessons on. The ‘life cycle of a fly”, the solar system and the vast galaxy and the planets, all that were taught to students of their same age in government and private schools, were all being taught to these students through the brail system.
“We cannot show pictures that are printed on text books through the brail system. Pictures cannot be translated into brail. So through plastic dummies we try to teach these students everything that is in the normal education syllabus of other students. However during exams a huge injustice is happening to these students due to the fact that pictures can’t be translated,” said the Vice Principal of the Blind school, Surani Fernando who had been serving at the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind for 31 years.
The Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind compromises three schools, namely the school for the Blind and the school for the Deaf in Ratmalana. And Nuffield School for the Deaf and Blind Kaithady in Jaffna. The schools were founded by Miss Mary Chapman, a missionary lady from England in 1912. She started the school in a rented house in Dehiwala and shifted to the present premises in Ratmalana in 1914. However in 1946 the school was separated into two schools. In 1955 the school for the Deaf and Blind in at Kaithady was established to meet the needs of the deaf and blind children in the North. The student population of these three schools is just a little below 600 children. During the last 100 years these students have made great strides in all spheres of activities which are prevalent in normal schools. Apart from this, lodging, healthcare, recreational facilities and vocational training are provided free of charge to the students at these schools. The schools are managed by a board of trustees with the Anglican Bishop of Colombo as the chairperson. Nevertheless the students are mostly non-Christian while all facilities are provided to them to engage in their religious activities.
When we entered the Primary class of the Blind school, the students became so excited, that they started to sing for us. They sang a nursery rhyme from their little voices while playing their little musical instruments. After their song ended, all of us clapped in appreciation, and was about to leave, when, one student unaware that half of the media personnel had already left the room, shouted, “Nil Ahas thalei Kiyanney Nedda?” (Are we not going to sing Nil Ahas thalei?). The little child’s innocent voice brought the journalists and photographers who had already left the nursery back to the room again while it also succeeded to make a request to the student’s teacher to let the children sing “Nil Ahas Thalei Agei”.
The little voices started to sing. It was very emotional to watch them as the students wanted to sing their best (to attract our attention). It was obvious that they were singing from their hearts. They were singing about a sky they had never seen. Of a moon they had only heard of in fairy tales. They were singing of the beauty of the blue lotuses and water lilies (Manel flowers) that only exist for them in their dreams. Perhaps in their little words, they have imagined what and how the sky is. Felt the brightness of the moon and the loneliness of the stars, experienced the texture and softness of lilies and lotuses. Perhaps in their little heads they had imagined and experienced the beauty of that world we have taken for granted. Perhaps in their heads, they had seen a much lovelier world, felt its colours and diversity, than the world we are living in today.
In these schools all the students are taught up to the GCE ‘O’ Level examination. However deaf students find it difficult to pass the O level exam, when many in the school of the blind succeed to pass the O/L examination and proceed to mainstream schools to continue their studies further and to do their Advanced/Level examination. According to information of the school, it is reported that more than hundred students have obtained their degrees after entering university, while few have become lawyers. It is also reported that many students have found employment as teachers, and found jobs in other fields such as telephone operators, broadcasting and in the hotel industry.
Daily Mirror met with the Head Prefect of the Blind School, Wasana who had recently passed her O/L examination and was waiting to enter a mainstream school to do her A/L examination.
“I answered the same questions and examination papers that were answered by children who were able to see and passed my exam. I entered this school in 2004 when I was in grade three. I plan to study arts for my A/Ls and learn the subjects Buddhist Culture, history and political science,” Wasana said.
When we inquired from Wasana which school she is planning to enter to do her A/L exam, she said with a smile that she could go to any school.
“So will they have brail text books?” I asked.
" It is reported that more than hundred students have obtained their degrees after entering university, while few have become lawyers. It is also reported that many students have found employment as teachers, and found jobs in other fields such as telephone operators, broadcasting and in the hotel industry "
“No, I will have to ask someone else to read the books to me, or I will have to ask somebody to tape the lessons and then listen to it,” Wasana replied.
Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind over the last few years has made considerable investments in new technology for the education of these children. Computer aided education; vocational training has been given a prominent place in all three schools. The emphasis is being shifted from traditional areas such as pottery, weaving, sewing and carpentry to more job oriented fields such as printing, hair dressing, beauty culture and mechanical training.
This was evident to us when we visited their school. A lot of teenage students who were suffering from hearing inabilities were practicing hair dressing. Their teacher explained to us, “sometimes in the society, these children are being mistreated due to their inexperience and innocence. They are being cheated and exploited. Therefore we teach them the art of hairdressing so that they can work from home without going out to the society.”
Strangely enough, white canes and hearing aids are not very popular in the Sri Lankan society. It is an acknowledged truth that we seldom find people with seeing and hearing inabilities using white canes and hearing aids today in our society. Speaking about this issue a teacher of the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind stated that though they promote the use of these items, while teaching children how to use them, sometimes, parents of these children does not prefer it and opt children to live without white canes and hearing aids.
It is hard to find answers to these questions. Nevertheless it is possible for us to make the lives of these students better, with a bit of kindness, understanding, acceptance and love, because in such a place where the space is occupied with these emotions, blindness is far from reach, and inability to hear is not a problem.