New report shows what works for deaf children’s education

While many organizations and governments are working to strengthen inclusive education, and close the persistent gaps in education and living standards, these efforts need to be married to a more nuanced focus on the unique challenges that different groups of children, such as deaf children, face, a new report says.

January 25, 2021 by Joanna Clark, Deaf Child Worldwide
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5 minutes read
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Children learning Indian Sign Language together at Child in Need Institute. Credit: Deaf Child Worldwide
Children learning Indian Sign Language together at Child in Need Institute.
Deaf Child Worldwide

At Deaf Child Worldwide we recently launched a new report looking at the experiences of deaf children growing up in India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The Unheard Children report builds on our twenty years’ experience, research with nearly a thousand families and the work of our network of community-based partner organizations who support some of the most vulnerable deaf children around the world.

UNICEF estimates that around 40% of children with disabilities are out of school at primary level and 55% by secondary school. But this isn’t the whole story. As more inclusive programs are developed, we need to dig deeper into the data, and look at the specific experiences of children with different types of disabilities.

While many international organizations and governments are doing important work to strengthen inclusive education, and to close the persistent gaps in education and living standards, these efforts need to be married to a more nuanced focus on the unique challenges that different groups of children, such as deaf children, face.

Language and communication are central

Deaf children can do anything a hearing child can, so long as they receive the right support. If a deaf child is supported to develop language and communication skills (whether signed or spoken) as early as possible, their life chances will improve dramatically.

But early years support is often non-existent, sign language teaching is rare and access to technology can be prohibitively expensive. WHO estimates that there are 34 million deaf children growing up around the world, with the majority living in developing countries. Our own research shows the majority of deaf children in East Africa begin primary school with virtually no language skills at all, and are unable to communicate with their classmates or teachers. We see a similar picture in South Asia too.

If a child is never properly supported to communicate, they may physically be in a classroom, but they won’t be able to receive a meaningful education. For deaf children to make progress in these circumstances, teachers need to be able to support them to learn and develop their language skills on an ongoing basis.

Why nuanced program design is so important

For deaf children already at school, we know that some approaches can prove extremely effective. These include bringing deaf children together, in or outside school, to make sure they aren’t isolated from other children and that they can build up social networks that can help reinforce learning.

Additional tailored support from a deaf teacher or an educator trained to a high level in deaf education techniques, who can support both the classroom teacher and the deaf students, makes a significant difference. Helping hearing peers learn to communicate with their deaf friends is also hugely important, as well as introducing deaf adults into a child’s life to act as role models.

Children learning to count at the Graham Bell Centre for the Deaf. Credit: Deaf Child Worldwide
Children learning to count at the Graham Bell Centre for the Deaf.
Credit: Deaf Child Worldwide

Above all, teachers need to be trained so that they understand how to support deaf children to develop language skills and know how to make learning as visual and accessible as possible. All of these are valuable skills that would benefit many hearing as well as deaf children.

Education begins at home

Education begins long before schools starts, and a family is a child’s first teacher. If deaf children are to get the best possible start in life, then supporting their family is critical.

Ideally, of course, every deaf child would start school confident in at least one language, whether sign or spoken, and so be able to immediately start to develop their reading and writing skills.

For the next generation of deaf children to be in a better position they, just like hearing children, need to learn language at home and in preschool settings before they start primary school.

This is a challenge given the fact that 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents with no previous experience of deafness. Added to this is a major shortage of preschools able to support deaf children, consistently late diagnosis of deafness and limited accessibility to basic hearing technology such as hearing aids.

In our research, two thirds of parents said communication is the biggest barrier to deaf children getting a good education.

Supporting families to communicate with their deaf child is key. But so is creating opportunities for families with deaf children to meet so that they can offer one another both emotional and practical support. Many of the parent groups supported by Deaf Child Worldwide and our partners have played critical roles in helping to break down the many barriers that they and their deaf children face when they try to access health-care and education. Parents and family members are also crucial advocates for greater deaf awareness within the wider community.

“Deaf Child Worldwide continues to be a world leader in championing deaf children’s rights to family, community, education and independence. The new Unheard Children report will serve as a vital resource for development specialists, governments, NGOs and global institutions for years to come.”

Gordon Brown, former UK Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education in his foreword to the Unheard Children report.

What does the future hold?

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has resulted in many schools across the world being closed and in teachers and parents having to introduce innovative approaches to education and work together in ways they have never done before. Let us learn from these experiences and make sure that as the pandemic comes to an end, investment in education is made in the right places.

If we are to ‘build back better’ for deaf children, this investment needs to recognize the crucial role that families and early years education play in ensuring that when these children start school, they do so with the same chances of learning as their hearing peers.

Millions of deaf children are currently being denied this opportunity and the situation has to change.

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Great work, we also need help and support from your organisation in our school here in Nigeria, thanks.

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