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My sixteen years of educational experiences were those of any mainstreamed student. In my early years, decisions were being made regarding the two schooling options: special schools or the general education system. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, special schools, and particularly institutes for the deaf, were quickly mushrooming all over Karachi. Notably, the first were Ida Rieu School for the blind and deaf in Karachi and Marie Adelaide’s leprosy centre. However, due to their relaxed admission criteria, special educators admitted students with all kinds of special needs. Also on humanitarian grounds, school managements did not refuse admission to any student. Reverse inclusion was also common; students without disabilities also joined special schools. Due to lack of qualified teachers, many students were crammed in one classroom and received inhumane treatment. Except for a very few institutes run by Christian missionaries from India and Bangladesh, others were less concerned about the welfare of their students.
Photo: © www.kidmagz.com
The period between the late 1980s and early 1990s saw Karachi in a state of ethno-political violence and rampant targeted killings. The political activism gained momentum, with youths joining forces from Larkana, Hyderabad and Nawabshah. Due to the unstable political situation, one of my paternal aunts and her family moved from Karachi to Lahore. She explored all educational opportunities and suggested Lahore Grammar School as a schooling option for us. It had been recently established and in its third year of running. In October 1988, our family moved to Lahore, leaving our native city and the chaos.
According to my parents and early years teachers, we were developing at the same milestones as other students. Because the language center in brain was not affected, reading and writing in English and Urdu language did not prove to be an ordeal. Due to my ability to hear and speak, I did not use sign language to express myself. We were explicitly taught to listen with all our senses and become more visual: observing other people while they talked. Our teachers of the next grade were sensitized to our issues of hearing losses by the previous grade teachers prior to our promotion. They provided modifications in the classroom seating arrangement; my best seating position would be the first seat at the extreme right or left, that afforded me a panoramic view of the class during class discussions. I would need repeated instructions, or words written on the board. There were a few teachers who did not provide any of the adjustments and were generally non-cooperative. I missed important announcements such as bringing materials for the next day’s activity. However, my parents would follow up with other parents in case we missed announcements or calls.
My early assistive device, ‘the phonic box’, would give out annoying feedback sound if the volume was kept too high. A few of my teachers understood the nature of the sound, and I would ask my class fellows to be more tolerant and alert me whenever something was wrong. Other teachers would get curious and wondered where the sound was coming from and would check the classroom for sparrows or other birds! Then I’d point to the source of the ‘curious sound’! They facilitated afterwards by coming near my desk and checking my device or replacing old batteries for me. Although teachers were not trained in assistive devices, they established strong partnership with my parents to further understand my needs. They also asked my parents if they could spend extra time after school to correct some of my words that I mispronounced from textbooks. In those thirty minutes, three times a week, one of my teachers showed great care and patience to improve my pronunciation. Early intervention had set the pace for success in my later academic years, and there was unparalleled support from the major stakeholders, administration, teachers and parents.
Early intervention had set the pace for success in my later academic years.
The middle academic years were very difficult at times. I particularly hated dictation in Urdu classes. I almost fell through the cracks and lost marks. My 6th grade Urdu teacher was very unaccommodating; she would pace around the class while calling out words in a low voice, leaving me to strain my neck and fail at lip-reading! Fortunately, my close friend backed up for me by allowing me to peek in her notebook or repeat the words in case I failed to grasp the whole paragraph. I requested my parents to tell teachers to do away with dictation as it gave me lots of anxiety. But alternative testing was not a concept back then and I continued to struggle with dictation for seven years until I started O-level. That is when dictation was not practiced any more.
In every term report, class teachers wrote, ‘she needs to improve her class participation’ and at every parent-teacher meeting, I was praised for my academic excellence. I was strongly encouraged to participate and share more with the class, but I hesitated a lot during question and answer sessions. More often than not, I missed out the question and gave wrong answers. Instead of giving another opportunity to me, teachers would turn to other students. When I finally understood the question, I would regret because I knew the answers. At that time, I wondered, ‘if all the world’s spoken words were visualized in the form of texts, I would be amazed at how much I have missed out!’ At the age of seven, I developed strong proficiency in reading. My first book was Oxford Pocket English dictionary, which I memorized one fine summer! I was keen on staying at the top of class and win the laurels from my teacher!
‘If all the world’s spoken words were visualized in the form of texts, I would be amazed at how much I have missed out!’
My class fellows in my early years were my best resources. But as I started middle years, I developed a severe complex and low self-esteem when a group of girls in my class started bullying me. It continued till the day I graduated from O-level. They would call out my name from a distance, and taunt me when I didn’t hear. I did my best to ignore them, and finally I sought help from my librarian whom I trusted a lot. Another difficulty I faced was trying to improve my listening skills. The curriculum in O-Level, unlike the previous years, taught us inquiry skills, with lots of class discussions and feedback in progress. Group work was challenging, as again my participation fluctuated. But I still passed London Edexcel examinations in Science subjects.
Photo: © Khaula Rizwan
Naturally after O-Level, I wanted to apply to A-level, but my family’s finances derailed, which forced me to take up Intermediate (Pre-Medical) instead as a cheaper option. Having studied in classrooms where rote memorization was frowned upon, I had a hard time adjusting to Intermediate English. Our English language teachers from government universities envied our skills and deliberately lowered our marks stating, ‘do not use any vocabulary words and do not write in your own words!’ I found my other talents in sports particularly table tennis, cricket and basketball. When I joined the college’s sports team, I was hoping I would be able to learn all the rules and excel at these sports. While the sport’s coach was good, there were no rules on ‘paper’. They would teach as they still teach today in most schools: play and learn. Because I was a fast reader, I’d ask my sport fellows to illustrate the rules on paper or on the mud with sticks. We finally went to provincial championships, competing with leading universities.
I’d ask my sport fellows to illustrate the rules on paper.
While deciding on career, I had many people around me who told me, “You cannot become a doctor!” True, there is lots of communication involved between patients and doctors. Despite repeating Intermediate twice and passing Medical College Test on high merit, I did not gain admission to a medical university. I was told to apply on the disability quota reserved in government universities but I declined. Therein followed a long period of eight months, fighting off depression and kidney disease. I waited for an avenue to open, which finally did when I was admitted to University of Health Sciences’ Internal School of Allied Health Sciences (at Children’s Hospital) in Lahore.
During my two years of undergraduate studies in medical laboratory technology, I experienced what psychologists refer to as ‘sensory overload’. Listening to lectures, with full focus on the lecturer was putting too much strain on my one sense, whilst all other senses tried to compensate. Taking up fourteen subjects including anatomy and biochemistry, I enjoyed medical subjects. At this stage, I felt the need for note-takers. Most of my class fellows did not take notes during lectures or practicals. I’d spend hours in the hospital library to make my own notes as soon as the lectures ended. Toward the end of second year with board examinations nearing, I found myself struggling with practicals especially vivas. It was a daunting task trying to explain to all the faculty members, one by one, to adjust their tone of voice, style of questioning and repeating etc. I was mostly anxious about the attitudes of the doctors who conducted vivas. In one of those vivas, I almost flunked a Haematology practical: the Haematologist was extremely non-cooperative and refused to write down the questions. I joined study groups with class fellows to reinforce taught concepts. Fortunately, I passed all examinations and practicals whilst four of my class fellows received notices to re-take exams.
I took a break from studies, and joined Shaukat Khanum cancer hospital to apply theory in practice. After two and half years, I made the decision to make a career change as the educational sector in Pakistan demanded ‘change agents’. Following a brief stint at a non-profit organization, I was awarded merit and needs-based scholarship to pursue post-graduate study in Education from Beaconhouse National University.
I made an initial request to my education department that I might need note-takers for lectures. But after observation, I realized I could do fine on my own. Small faculty-student ratio, supplementary handouts and notes made thing easier. In a few months, I was making notes for my class fellows! I was also nervous about the number of presentations I would have to give in each module. Preparing presentations was not a problem, but thinking about delivery and speech impediment was. Initially, there were lots of stutters and stammers, which lessened after hours of practice. Except for three modules, I felt most of the modules and assignments were not challenging enough for me. Maybe I was too used to working my way around challenges and obstacles, that I wanted a heads-on challenge. In the final semester, I pondered over my research interests. While I had always spent time in the ‘hearing world’, I was also acutely aware of the problems faced by students and adults in institutes for special children and vocational organizations. I wanted to choose a topic that would not only challenge me, but also enable teachers to come forward and voice their opinions.
Maybe I was too used to working my way around challenges and obstacles, that I wanted a heads-on challenge.
I was really fortunate to be assigned a supervisor from Forman Christian College, Lahore, who left no stone unturned to help me charter a least-explored research area. Around the time for fieldwork, my apprehension level soared high: How will I make appointments with principals and administrators? Do I have to visit them all in person first to schedule meet-up times? I was fairly aware which schools would respond by emails and very few did, others did not bother. My supervisor’s farsightedness saved the day. He suggested that he make the initial appointments for me; I resumed the field work and went in person to make appointments from school managers who did not respond to my emails.
Photo: © Groupin.pk
Due to security situation, outsiders’ visits to the school premises were only allowed through ‘a phone call’ at the gate. That created a major obstacle for me throughout my two months of field visits. I was severely let down by the attitudes of school guards, ‘the gate keepers’. Once, this guard banged the phone receiver down, when I tried to explain my situation as to why I wouldn’t talk on phone. He forced the receiver in my hand, and shouted, “either attend the call or leave the place!” The harassment continued for the next two days. I finally wrote a letter to the school administration. And things got sorted out.
Another obstacle during my thesis research was the interview transcription. I wrote in my journal entry, ‘I couldn’t understand my own voice, as the video was facing the interviewee. I should have kept two cameras.’ On a time crunch, I searched online to look for transcription services in Lahore, or Pakistan but none was available. They mostly did translation. Some did not know what transcription was. International services were costly, but I had no other option. I wanted to try out their service for my own future needs.
My supervisor’s positive attitude and encouragement, and high expectations from us students got us sailing through thesis research.
All in all, there were many stumbling blocks during my academic years. I had to adapt, adjust and make my way through in a system which refused to change or transform in order to include all learners. My experience was purely that of a mainstreamed or integrated student in an unchanged educational system. It was all about figuring out the next exit route. Or doing something differently from the rest. I firmly believe that behind every success that a student experiences, there are parents and teachers who strongly believe in you and ask you to aim as high as you can. And assure you that it will be worth it. And it certainly was.
Behind every success that a student experiences, there are parents and teachers who strongly believe in you.
[Head photo: © Khaula Rizwan]