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Happy Hands School is enabling deaf children in rural Odisha to learn in sign language

Our #StoryOfTheWeek is a feature on a school in rural Odisha that aims to bring education into the lives of deaf children. Currently in its third year, Happy Hands School for the Deaf has started a fundraiser as it wants to expand its premises and reach out to more deaf kids.

Located in the village of Sindurpur in rural Odisha, Happy Hands School is more than living up to its name. It was launched in 2016 by prominent Deaf leader and teacher Sibaji Panda, who has been working actively to promote Indian sign language. Most schools in India don't encourage teaching in sign language and rely on oral methods. This forces deaf students to grasp through lip reading.

Happy Hands School is changing this by using a bilingual education system where sign language is combined with forms of teaching to impart quality education. The staff here is proficient in sign language, which makes the students comfortable and promotes better learning.

The school is reaching out to 30 deaf and hard of hearing children from 25 villages within Odisha and hopes to reach out to even more.

The students are mostly from Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. For most of them a school was never in their dreams, nor in that of their families. They were left out in the social system as a burden on family. For them the school is now their new home, where everyone signs. Getting access to education and daily life is not a question here as it is embedded in our school environment. Sibaji Panda, Director, Happy Hands School

The school is presently running out of a rented place and this is not enough to accommodate the growing numbers. A need is being felt for a larger space and hence, a fundraiser has been launched. The aim is to expand the residential and educational facilities.

The new school will be built with sustainable ecofriendly material, not concrete and will have provisions for solar energy generation and an organic garden where vegetables will be grown for the children.

For students like Lipi, the school has been a game changer. "No one in our family ever went to school for generations", says her father. We do not understand English but our two children who can't hear are now studying in a good school for free. Lipi no longer works in field with us but studies when she come home. I always wanted to study but poverty never allowed us. I hope my two deaf kids will be better than me and not go hungry".

Another father says he is happy that he can now communicate with his son. "My child has become expressive and talkative now. He teaches me sign language at home and we are able to enjoy our communication ever better. He loves drawing and painting and the school encourages individual skills apart from literacy. He can now read and write like his sister, who is not deaf".

The school is run by the Rural Lifeline Trust and aims to give a chance to deaf children to get a better life by educating them and providing means of holistic development. "We are not doing charity but are a research-based school which aims to crack the centuries old failure in deaf education, literacy and livelihood," says Sibaji.

Ruma Roka, Founder of the Noida Deaf Society, which works to provide deaf children and youth with education and vocational skills, says the school is filling a much needed gap.

"The education of deaf children countrywide is definitely lagging behind and they are not reaching any caliber of learning, knowledge and education as compared to their non-deaf peers. Sign language is the crux for communication with a deaf child. Without communication how can a child who cannot hear or speak learn or be taught in a classroom? So, I think that any kind of initiative that focuses on developing language, language acquisition and then leads from that to development of educational content needs to be lauded."

Ruma says such efforts are needed to ensure greater recognition for Indian sign language. "I am happy that things are going in the right direction and slowly sign language is gaining recognition. Parents who earlier opposed the education of their children in ISL are now coming forward themselves".

Sibaji's own struggles accessing an education led him to start the school. "My brother Ramjee Panda is also Deaf and we have been deprived of a good education. We decided to start this school not by chance but by our own motivation to bring changes to the current education scenario". It's a passion and commitment that led him to quit a well paying university job to ensure that the coming generation of deaf and hard of hearing children enjoy access to opportunities on an equal footing.

Click here to donate. Visit the Rural Lifeline website to know more about the school.

Or EMAIL sibajip@gmail.com

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