Special School Helps Deaf Students Shatter Stereotypes

The tables and chairs are piled in the corner and the fourth floor of the Learning Center for the Deaf (LCD) still smells of fresh paint. But soon these facilities in Baabda's Brasilia neighborhood will be ready to host one of Lebanon's most unique high school programs. Since 2003 the LCD has offered the only high school program for deaf students in Lebanon that is recognized by the Education Ministry.

The LCD, founded in 2001, is based on a private initiative run by Hussein Ismail and his wife Nadine. Although the right to education for disabled people became law in Lebanon in 2000, institutions like the LCD are still heavily dependent on private initiatives - financially and in terms of the effort required to run the school, Hussein told The Daily Star.

A holder of a doctorate in educational administration, Hussein Ismail is himself deaf. He says he felt the need to give other people the opportunities he had enjoyed - the chance to attend high school and university.

Ismail, who lost his hearing when he was just 18 months old, says he founded the center with $15,000 he received from organizations in the United States, Holland, and Switzerland.

But the apartment that he and his wife rented with the little money they had was soon too small to meet the growing demand for the center's services, and offering the planned high school program in the facilities was simply unthinkable.

A Dutch organization finally agreed to take over the fundraising campaign to buy a new building, and two years later, the LCD moved into freshly renovated facilities in Brasilia, paid for by the Japanese Embassy. In 2003, the center started its high school program for the first time.

"We wanted to offer something unique. We didn't want to compete with other institutions by offering something that already exists, but looked at what we could add to the already existing services and curriculums, and what needs are still unfulfilled," Ismail said.

Some students who had already attained a Brevet diploma from other schools for deaf students came to the center to get the official Lebanese Baccalaureate, Ismail said. "The LCD is the only center that offers the Lebanese Baccalaureate to the deaf," he told The Daily Star.

What the first eight students who enrolled in the LCD's three-year-program in 2003 were being taught did not differ from the normal, national curriculum, notwithstanding their hearing disability. Only the teaching methods were a little different.

"First of all, someone who teaches deaf students always has to make sure that his face is clearly visible to the students while he teaches, so the students can lip-read," Ismail explained. "A teacher can't talk and write on the board at the same time, for example.

"In addition, we teach 42 hours a week, and not 35 hours like in other schools. We do this because many of the students have problems with language subjects. Since their language is sign-language, they have difficulties studying spoken languages," he added.

The LCD employs teachers who are specialists in the subject they teach, not sign-language specialists. "Our goal is to help our students to find their way out of a protected environment into the world of the university where they will have to find their way on their own," Ismail said.

This strategy of getting the students ready for "real life" is also part of his fight against the prejudice deaf people face in society: "We see ourselves as hearing-handicapped, as people with certain special needs. But we are not generally handicapped in its widespread negative sense of the meaning. We want to be part of the productive society.

Some of the students, he said, even feel offended when they are offered a card issued by the Lebanese government identifying them as disabled.

All eight students who started their studies in 2003 passed the official governmental examination in 2006 and are now holders of official Lebanese Baccalaureate certificates, Ismail said, adding that they all study at universities, learning subjects from computer graphic design to physical education, both in Lebanon and abroad.

But the high school program is not the only project run by the center's 22 employees. An important part of the LCD is its so-called "Early Intervention Program," which helps the family of a deaf child create a healthy environment for their child and themselves. The program includes technical support for hearing aids, the development of special skills, as well as meetings with all family members to discuss the child's development. "We aim to help the parents to help themselves and their children with their new situation," said Nadine Ismail, who runs the program.

Part of the Early Intervention Program was the Community Based Rehabilitation initiative, which aims to expand the LCD's services into rural areas. But because of a lack of volunteers the program has not yet been implemented effectively.

The LCD also has an integrated nursery, where deaf and children with normal hearing play and learn together.

Asked about the future of the center, Hussein spoke of his dreams for a university and a technical school for the hearing-impaired. "But if we are able to change the view of society concerning deaf people, I am already very happy," he said.



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