Sierra Leone: Improving Access to Basic Education for Deaf Children Through Family Communication

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jun 12 15:05:07 UTC 2008

Improving Access to Basic Education for Deaf Children Through Family

Concord Times (Freetown)

10 June 2008
Posted to the web 11 June 2008

By Philip Sahr Njepeh

About a fortnight ago I was at Hill Station with the Sawyerr's on my
usual rounds as a sign language facilitator for Master Victor
Onishegun Sawyerr and by coincidence I witnessed an unusual brouhaha
between the young master and his mother over a lost hearing aid.

Narrating his own version about the matter to me in sign language,
Victor recounted how on that fateful day his little hearing aid feel
off his ear while playing football with his friends at school and
though they searched for it they could not find it. He had just
reported the incident to his mother and was worried because it had
provoked so much anger from her. I tried to say something to calm Mrs.
Sawyerr, but the lady could not be put off.

Taking a piece of paper and a pen from the pockets of her kitchen
overalls, she wrote with a visibly trembling hand and explained about
how Victor's father had to wait for several months for a loan at his
office and travelled all the way to Ghana to buy the hearing aid for
nine million Leones so that Victor can use it to follow oral
instructions at school. The child, however, denied that the particular
hearing aid was lost and went to fetch it right away from his room.

As soon as Mrs. Sawyerr saw the nine million Leones hearing aid with
her son, she heaved a heavy sigh of relief and literally ran up the
stairs to her room with smiles. That was how the matter ended
peacefully. Victor confirmed that his parents had bought three kinds
of hearing aids for him over the years. So we concluded that his
mother probably thought that it was the nine million Leones hearing
aid that got missing. As I looked up at the stairs after the lady, I
mused over the apparent struggle of families in providing their deaf
children with access to basic education in Sierra Leone due to lack of
awareness about the communication needs of a deaf child.

The birth of a deaf child often creates emotional tensions in the
family, due to fear and anxiety about their deafness and inability to
speak. It is believed that if a child cannot hear or speak, he or she
does not command any language at all. Deaf children are therefore
taught to speak through the use of hearing aids and speech therapy.
Speech therapy takes a long time and the amount of information that a
deaf child can receive or convey through therapy is always small.

Similarly, hearing aids may boost the 'residual' hearing of a deaf
child, but the bottom line is that hearing aids unlike glasses, do not
correct hearing.

Taken together, hearing aid and speech therapy focus on the disability
rather than the ability of a deaf child. Consequently, the child is
not able to experience success and satisfaction as quickly as is
possible; instead he develops lack of self confidence, self worth and
a negative attitude to learning. It may also instil in him a sense of
failure particularly if he does not achieve intelligible speech. That
besides, the wearing of hearing aid accentuates the stigma of being
deaf. This makes it difficult for a deaf child to accept and adjust
positively to his identity as a deaf person. On the other hand, the
use of sign language with a deaf child results in instant
communication. The ability of a deaf child to make himself understood
in sign language releases a lot of tensions in him so that he is able
to use his voice naturally and freely as he signs.

The question of whether to use hearing aid technology or sign language
as a communication tool in the education of deaf children provokes
perennial controversy characterised by medical and socio-cultural
schools of thought.

The medical school of thought defines deafness in terms of varying
degrees or decibels and the possible consequences of lack of hearing.
It sees a deaf person as lacking something who needs treatment and
rehabilitation with the help of hearing aids and speech therapy.

On the other hand, the socio-cultural school of thought defines
deafness in terms of social, cultural and linguistic aspects. It sees
a deaf person as a member of the deaf community who together with
other deaf people form a linguistic minority. The divergence in the
medical and socio-cultural schools of thought has led to the question
of whether deafness is a defect to be corrected or a difference to be

The medical approach to deafness assumes that language is equivalent
to speech and has therefore preferred the oral method in the education
of deaf children. In contrast, the socio-cultural approach to deafness
is based on the assumption that deaf people constitute a social and
cultural group and members of this group use sign language as a
primary means of communication.

It therefore prefers the visual method in the education of deaf children.

At the heart of the medical and socio-cultural controversy lie the
twin issues of communication and speech. In order to appreciate the
significance of these issues in the education of deaf children in
Sierra Leone, there is need to examine the extent to which oral and
visual methods of education contribute to the realisation of the goals
of our national basic education programme.

The National Conference on Education for all by the year 2000 which
was convened in Freetown in July 1989, defined basic education as a
composite of literacy, numeracy, knowledge of basic science and social
institutions, mental skills, occupational skills and a set of healthy
values and attitudes. It comprises pre, primary and junior secondary
education. The main goals of the programme are: To eliminate the
source of illiteracy and lack of basic education by increasing
enrolment and stemming regression and dropout rates; provide
opportunities for those who did not receive basic education as well as
for those who dropped out of the formal system to achieve basic
education including; children in primary schools, out of school
youths, women, rural population and illiterates in public and private
sectors; and to help those who achieve basic education to retain it
and continue to use it in their personal, social and national lives
for further development of themselves, their communities and their

The oral method of education emphasizes the use of spoken language as
a medium of instruction for deaf children at school. However to be
deaf means not to hear. By implication deaf children cannot access
information through spoken language. Lack of access to information
excludes the deaf child from the education process. This explains why
deaf children in Sierra Leone do not have access to basic education
beyond the primary school level. The visual method of education on the
other hand emphasizes the use of sign language as a medium of
instruction for deaf children at school. Sign language is the mother
tongue of deaf children. Through the use of this language, the deaf
child increases his vocabulary, self awareness and the capacity to
communicate in a spoken language. Such capacitating leads to active
participation of deaf children in the education process. Increasing
enrolment and stemming regression and dropout rates can only be
achieved through active participation in the basic education process.

Exclusion and participation characterizes oral and visual methods in
the education of deaf children. This suggests that in the struggle of
families to provide deaf children with access to basic education in
Sierra Leone, it is communication and not speech that should matter

Given that the medical approach to deafness has dominated the policies
of governments concerning the education of deaf children, the question
then arise: How does family communication improve deaf children's
access to basic education in Sierra Leone?

The strategies for achieving the goals of our national basic education
programme focuses on three main areas: Strengthening institutions;
identification and consolidation of basic education programmes; and
creation of learning environment. This assumes that government support
is translated into a strong policy on basic education and its language
or languages of instruction; availability of relevant statistics on
basic education through needs assessment surveys; a national basic
education commission, rural urban education disparities is narrowed;
the educational base is strong; trained and qualified education
personnel; and reading materials and audio-visual media.

There is congruence between the basic education hypothesis and family
communication. Parents with deaf children in Sierra Leone belong to
different groups; the members of the groups lack awareness about the
deafness and linguistic identity of their deaf children; they have
limited access to sign language training opportunities; they also lack
fellowship among themselves; and they do not associate with the groups
of deaf youths and adults. Consequently, the groups of parents with
deaf children in Sierra Leone are not united; they also find it
difficult to advocate for the right of their deaf children to have
access to sign language as a medium of instruction at school;
similarly they find it difficult to communicate with their deaf
children at home; they also do not meet together to share experiences
and exchange ideas about the early childhood education of the deaf;
and they find it difficult to cooperate and work together with deaf
youths and adults to advocate for the recognition of deaf children as
a linguistic minority group.

In view of this family communication should focus on: establishment of
committee; identification and visits to relevant parents and families;
group meetings; and discussions on alternative options for early
childhood education of the deaf.

More specifically it should involve: appointment of a facilitator and
procurement and of training materials and logistics; community
awareness raising and survey; parents training and joint workshops
between parents, teachers, and deaf youths and adults.

Through these activities, families with deaf children in Sierra Leone
will be able to recognise and accept the rights of their deaf child to
communicate in the language of his or her own choice organise
resources and support the development of services that ensure deaf
children's equal access to basic education.

Philip Sahr Njepeh is a Sign Language Facilitator.

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