Sunday, August 30, 2009

Deaf children tune in to lessons at hi-tech school

Source Link - Deaf children tune in to lessons at hi-tech school

Mainstream classes cater for special needs

When children enter a class, their hearing devices tune in to a frequency on which the teacher transmits

Five years ago, Landi Maphumulo communicated with hand gestures and by muttering.

Today, the Grade 4 pupil has not only dropped his hand signals, but he can also string together full sentences and communicate with his audiologist without looking at the teacher to lip-read.

Nine-year-old Landi, who contracted meningitis as a baby and lost his hearing as a result, is one of 76 hearing-impaired pupils attending a mainstream private school of 462 pupils, the Eduplex Primary School and Training Centre in Queenswood, Pretoria. The school operates from potty-trained toddlers in Grade 0000 to Grade 7.

Outside, in the “interactive garden”, where the plants have name tags , pupils chat among themselves, and inside the classrooms they listen intently to their teachers.

But if you look — and listen — more closely, you realise that it is not just another school.

Here, the hexagonal classrooms have been acoustically treated to accommodate the school’s hard-of-hearing pupils.

Some of them have not yet mastered speech — but are well on their way to doing so, thanks to the facilities at the school, believed to be the only one of its kind in South Africa.

Other schools such as the Carel du Toit Centre in Cape Town — where deaf children learn to speak — offer similar services, but have less technology and cater exclusively for the hearing-impaired.

According to headmaster Jannie de Goede, Eduplex has a “very special model of inclusion” — it is an ordinary, mainstream school where hearing-impaired children follow exactly the same curriculum and learn alongside their hearing peers.

Here, children wearing hearing aids and those who have had cochlea implants are taught to listen and talk in an environment set up for the deaf.

The centre’s assistant director, Jan Grobbelaar, said the classrooms had even been specifically designed in a hexagon shape — representing a bee hive — to fit in individual rooms where teachers have one-on-one sessions with the deaf pupils after school.

“The classes have been acoustically treated. The walls have pin-board carpets for acoustics,” he said.

“There are more lights than normal, so the teachers’ lips are always visible.”

Each class has its own FM system. When children enter a classroom, their hearing devices automatically tune in to its radio frequency .

The teachers wear FM transmitters which amplify their voices and block out other ambient sound. The device has a 30m range.

“The challenge is that the teachers have to remember to switch off the transmitters when they sit in the staff room,” joked De Goede.

The hearing-impaired pupils follow the same curriculum as their hearing peers, but also get extra tuition after school.

They have sessions with the centre’s four audiologists, who also make sure that their hearing devices are in working order on a daily basis.

“It is very important that the deaf children aren’t taking time away from the hearing children,” said audiologist Jayne Barnard.

An international consultant in natural auditory education for the hearing-impaired, Dr Morag Clarke, said technology had made it easy for deaf children to hear, and learn to speak and make use of the spoken language.

“You need to be able to speak well to read well, and you have to read well to do well academically,” she said.

Having hearing-impaired children at a mainstream school is in line with the government’s policy on inclusive education for special needs pupils.

However, not all support the idea of teaching deaf children to talk without using sign language as well.

Ingrid Parkin, director of deaf education at the Deaf Federation of South Africa, said: “A strong language foundation leads to good reading ability, but nowhere does it say that this strong language foundation has to be spoken language .

“If we were to adopt an exclusively spoken approach, we would be excluding the deaf child from the deaf community”.

Paul Simmons, a lecturer in South African sign language at the University of the Witwatersrand, compared teaching the deaf to hear to making blind children see.

“ One teaches the blind child to adapt with Braille, walking canes, dogs for the blind,” he said.

“Do those adaptations require the use of sight? Obviously not. Such an approach should also be made with the deaf child. So what approach works? Sign language.”