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Fascination with sign language led Ruma Roka to give deaf people a voice

Through most of his growing up years Akshat, who was born deaf, struggled to find the right kind of support in schools. By the time his parents realized he had a hearing disability, Akshat was two years old and studying in a mainstream school.

"All the special schools we took him to would give him an IQ test and advised us to continue in a mainstream school and give him speech therapy", says mother Kamna Mathur. "He would learn by looking by pictures but would struggle to express himself or find acceptance".

Kamna says this inability to find expression led to a lot of anger in her son. Help finally came earlier this year when she got to know about the Noida Deaf Society (NDS), a non-profit that offers training opportunities to people with hearing disabilities to enable them to lead independent lives. After some initial reluctance, Akshat agreed to enroll at the center.

NDS was founded in 2005 by Ruma Roka, at a time where awareness, leave alone sensitization, about people with disabilities was non-existent. Roka says she was always wanted to start a school and her eureka moment came when she saw a news bulletin in Indian Sign Language (ISL). She decided to enroll for ISL classes and her world changed.

I got to interact with so many deaf people and when I heard the kind of problems they faced, I realized the issues - no real schooling, lack of awareness among parents, and lack of processes for them. I knew I had to do something. - Ruma Roka, Founder, Noida Deaf Society

That was easier said than done. The obstacles as Roka was soon to realize were many. Starting with the families. Most of them were conditioned to believe that children who are deaf and hard of hearing must be mainstreamed. "I came up against parents who believed they must be made to speak", says Roka. "When I told them about giving them skills in sign language, the reaction was 'no'. The children had been put through speech therapy and were struggling to speak because they could not hear their own voices. "

When told they would be taught skills in sign language, most parents objected. Roka asked the parents for six months with their children post which they would see a change into becoming capable, young adults.

A transformation Kamna, who enrolled Akshat in NDS in April this year, testifies to. "He has changed so much. Now, he understands what we are saying and if he is facing an issue, the school talks to him about it openly. We should have come here much earlier".

NDS reaches out to children who are deaf and hard of hearing in multiple ways. It runs a primary school from nursery to class 5 where children are taught all concepts by teachers who are deaf, because as Roka puts it, "they need role models in their deaf trainers". She has designed the curriculum such that it is specific to their needs and experiences.

"When deaf people talk about their lives the grammar is in their bodies, on their faces. You are using every part of your body to express and how beautiful is that? What I loved about Indian Sign Language is that everything is expressed as a story. It's like a storytelling form. That triggered me to create a curriculum for them. I knew that this way I could train them professionally. "

For children who are 18 and above, there are remedial classes where they are taught how to read and write. This draws families from different states like Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. These are youth who have gone through the schooling system, but like Akshat have not learned much.

At the remedial classes, children are taught functional grammar and English to enable basic communication. They are also taught basic technical skills like how to repair mobiles as well as IT courses like MS Office.

Another parent, Vijayalakshmi Polla, whose daughter is a former student of NDS, describes the experience at NDS as life altering.

"My daughter became confident and learned to make friends. Before that she had nothing of her own world, no social circle. Now she lots of friends and meets them often."

Today NDS trainers are teaching sign language skills to teachers in deaf schools in states like Odisha, Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. This is truly the start of a revolution in empowering India's hearing disabled community. One that was triggered off by the beauty Ruma Roka found in random hand movements and expressions.

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