Learning is a lifelong process, as the Mongolians say. Children suffering from hearing impairment have the ability to live full and productive lives in the same way as other children. But they need additional support when learning.
Because of the hearing loss, hearing-impaired children need to have things carefully explained on a one-to-one basis. That includes practical and small things such as what you are going to do, what you are going to buy or where you are going. It can take time, but it is necessary.
There are some 12,000 people in the country with hearing impairment, of whom about 6,000 are children. Some of these children of school age are enrolled to this school in Ulaanbaatar, while some go to schools in their own rural areas and a handful of such children are attending normal secondary schools on the inclusive education program. There are neither statistics nor registration as to how many children with hearing impairment do not attend schools.
M. Sarantuya, Director of the Special School Number 29 in the Mongolian capital granted the following interview to The Mongolian Observer where she speaks about her school, the challenges and the future plans.
Can you please, first, briefly tell us about your school.
Our school was founded in 1964. We have some 330 students and about 140 teaching and administrative staff. Ours is the only boarding school in the country for children with hearing impairment. Last year we had 160 boarding students from across the country. Our school is fully funded by the Government.
Not all children with hearing impairment are enrolled in our school. Although we are the only national-level public school, quite many children with hearing impairment in the rural areas attend normal schools in Dornod, Khentii, Khövsgöl, Övörkhangai and Bayan-Ölgii aimags, as part of inclusive education.
Your school has quite many number of teaching and administrative staff for 330 students. Where have they been trained and are they specially trained teachers to work with children with hearing impairment? What do you think about the human resource policy of the government especially with regard to training skilled teachers and educators to work with physically challenged children?
If I may, I dare go back to history when teachers with special skills were trained from the 1980s to the early 1990s. Most of the teachers to work with children with hearing impairment were trained then in Hungary and Russia and up until the mid-2010 we had quite a good contingent of specially trained teachers woring at our schools. In the last 7 years many of them retired because of their retirement age. This left a gap in the human resources and last spring our students went on a strike demanding skilled and specially trained teachers to work with them as they feel that their right to education is being violated because of the poor quality of education they are being provided.
This I personally see as a failure in our human resource policy and the Government needs to give priority to this matter as children, especially physically disabled children, require a sound basic education so they can be better prepared for their adult life.
We are also being supported by international agencies and foreign countries in terms of proficiency training. This year, for example, 50 teachers with special teaching skills were trained with support by KOICA – Korea International Cooperation Agency and this project is for three years.
What do you think of inclusive education?
Inclusive education is important and some time I also feel that our school could be partially transformed into a one that promotes inclusive education where children with and without disabilities can participate and learn together in the same classes. I feel this is important also for application in normal schools, as children especially coming from remote rural areas to our school could stay back in their own aimags and soums close to their parents and attend the local school. This would be in the interest of the children and they would also have their parents to support them and even guide them when they graduate when it comes to choosing their future profession.
Moreover, physically challenged children, when learning together in a class with children without any disability will be able to compare their learning ability and they would be encouraged to make more effort to be on a par with their normal contemporaries. On the other hand, when parents enroll their children in our special boarding school, they feel their children’s education and upbringing are being taken care of by the school, and this could be damaging to physically challenged children when it comes to joining mainstream society.
As mentioned earlier, but because of the absence of a single human resource policy of the government, there aren’t that many specially trained teachers to work with children with hearing impairment who could work at normal.
The youngest of our boarding students are 6-year-old and they spend more than 9 months at school away from their parents and home, and so they feel homesick, which tells on their academic performance too. Boarding students of intermediary and senior classes, because they spend so much time at school away from their home find it difficult to adjust with and find a common language their parents and vice versa when they are away from their friends and class mates during their summer vacations. In other words, we sometime feel guilty that we are stealing away their parental love.
As a teacher with more than 30 years of experience at this special school, I personally feel that inclusive education is important especially for children with disabilities. Everyone knows how important an environment is and without a proper environment growth and development of a child are not possible.
However, without properly trained teachers, inclusive education sometime may not be an effective solution?
A boy with slight hearing impairment joined our school after completing his 5th grade in a normal school. His parents had a hearing aid for him but despite that after five years in school he was unable to cope with his classes and could not even write properly, which he learnt to do so within two years after joining our school. I am not saying that the quality of teaching at normal mainstream school is poor but it is only because there are too many children in a class and the class teacher does not have the time or the capacity to engage with all the children in the classroom, leave alone on a one-to-one basis with a boy like him. Also, teachers in mainstream school are not trained to deal with physically challenged children.
Earlier I mentioned that about children with hearing impairment involved in inclusive education in Dornod, Khentii, Khövsgöl, Övörkhangai and Bayan-Ölgii aimags. These children, after some time, come and join our school because of the above reason too.
In recent years, children with speech impediments are joining our school and now we have children who are deaf by birth, with hearing impairment, and speech disorder.
As a secondary school for physically challenged children, does your school focus only on academic education or are children also given some kind of vocational and professional training?
Our school has an advantage as compared to other mainstream secondary schools. In the middle school, technological classes are held 6-hours-a week as compared to two hours of technological class at normal schools. Intermediate and senior-class students of our school attend vocational classes in wood carving, tailoring, embroidery, hairdressing, cosmetology and pastry because we have found that children with these skills stand better chance of being employed or working on their own after completing their schooling.
In this sense, we feel that our secondary school could also have a faculty for vocational training. We have the teachers who can help students, say making Mongolian national dress – the del. We have the necessary equipment for conducting vocational training so that our secondary school students graduate with some kind of vocational skill.
Today IT skills are becoming very important. Globally the teaching of digital skills in schools is being regarded as equally important as lessons in numeracy and literacy. Is your school doing anything to teach digital skills to your students?
This makes it imperative for a radical rethink of education and we also believe that digital literacy should be treated a core subject. This is for the Ministry of Education to plan and act on and we hope our school is being considered because we believe our children have the skill and the interest to take up digital skills.
A couple of years ago UN Volunteers had come to our school and they believed that people with hearing impairment, if they are taught the digital skills, they can perform as well as normal people.
In 2007, I had visited Dornod aimag for a training where I met a mother of a boy with hearing impairment. She asked me to guide her as she wanted her son to be enrolled in the Mongolian National University of Science and Technology to major in IT. The boy Tulgaa fared extremely well in the entry exams, he was in the sixth place from the top of the list of freshmen who had passed the entry exams. Tulgaa has graduated majoring in IT and he is running his own IT business. In his final year, Tulgaa was asked to defend his diploma thesis as the last student in his class because other normal children without hearing problems could not match him in terms of his digital knowledge and skills.
Are the books and other teaching aids in your school developed specially for your students by your staff and related professionals? Is their supply sufficient?
We follow the national curriculum but in terms of special-purpose subjects their books have been developed by our teachers and related professionals. At present, there are two teams working on the development of special teaching materials. Now we are under the direct jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and with this change in jurisdiction, we are now able to work on the development of text books which meet the standards of special schools and the requirements of children with disabilities. The funding has yet to be finalized. There is definitely an urgent need to improve the development and supply of text books that serve the special needs of children with disabilities.
Earlier you had also mentioned but let me ask again: Last spring your students protested against the quality of teaching especially in sign language. The Ministry had set up a panel to investigate into the grievances of the children. How have their grievances been addressed?
On 27 March this year our students protested demanding that the skills of sign language teachers should be improved as they are unable to understand their subjects because of the sub-standard skills of the sign language teachers. This problem is related to the human resource issue I had also mentioned about earlier. At the same time, their demand means we have to improve our teaching skills drastically.
As we are talking, now a ten-day refresher training is being conducted at our school in collaboration with the Institute of Education. Not only the teaching but also all other staff of our school, including administrative staff, school doctor, social worker, psychologist and dormitory teachers are attending the training. It is the duty of the school to provide the education that our children need and if we fail in this matter, this would be tantamount to breaching their basic right to education.
As part of our effort to build the skill of our teaching and administrative staff, we are also working to open a pre-school group at our school. Children with hearing impairment, who get enrolled in our school from kindergarten tend to lag behind in their studies because when they join the 1st grade, they find it difficult to cope with their subjects and which they have to study them again in their 2nd grade. And so we are also focusing on training teachers that can work with children of pre-school age.
We have developed the relevant draft proposal and have submitted it to the Institute of Education and if this project proposal is approved we will have to renew our curriculum. For this purpose, we are planning to bring on board as consultants and advisers our senior teachers who have retired. We need to tap into their experience and expertise. With them coming on board, we will be also able to work on improving the quality of curriculum and text books.
Do you have any statistics as to how many of your school graduates are continuing higher education or how many have been employed etc.?
Unfortunately, we are poor in this respect. As a teacher with 30-year-experience with the school, I have personally done a small research in this area and I have found that students who have gone through our school have better life skills than their counterparts who have not been our students. Young people who have not gone through our school are likely to be more involved in conflict with law, they use unrefined sign language and are also unaware of laws and legislation that protect the rights and interests of people with disabilities. This means that there are children with hearing impairment who are being left out of the education system. For this the Government needs to have a special agency, like the one we used to have before 1990, overseeing matters related to all physically challenged people, whether they have sight impairment or hearing impairment.
Today there are many NGOs for the blind, the deaf and dumb, but their activities are not coordinated and consequently, the impact of their efforts are not felt even across the board. In the past when we had this single agency, people with hearing impairment were assigned to jobs – many such people used to work at the ceramics plant, now defunct, and many girls with hearing impairment were employed at another dressmaking plant in the city.
There are legal provisions according to which people with hearing impairment should make up at least 3 percent of the total work force of an economic entity. I am not confident that this provision of the law is being applied and implemented well. If the government pays more attention to such people with disabilities, and create jobs for them, they too can be responsible citizens and contribute to the country’s growth and development.
Finally, what else would you like to say about your school?
As we know, classrooms typically have very bad acoustics. Sounds from echoes, scraping chairs and background chatter can make it difficult for a hearing impaired child to understand the teacher. Even if the student is seated near the front of the classroom and the teacher is paying particular attention to their needs by directly facing the child and speaking clearly, the child can still miss a lot.
Our school has Assistive Learning Devices from Hungary and Russia, but now they are old and many have gone out of order as they were installed in the 1980s. They were very important for one-to-one and language classes. Today we are using some Assistive Learning Devices but that is enough for only 20 percent of all the students in a class. Children can have implant but not all parents can afford it, although a few children do have implants.
We have another problem and that is the kitchen as our’s is a boarding school. The kitchen equipment such as freezer, food processing and other machines have become old and obsolete, and this gives concern regarding the quality of food we serve our boarding students who come from remote areas.
The parents of these students from the rural areas are given once a year lump sum of MNT200 thousand for their travel arrangement, and since the families of most of the rural students are not that well off, many of these students during their holidays in the course of the school year, apart from their summer vacation, either spend their short holidays with their relatives in Ulaanbaatar or in the city’s neighborhoods along the railway line.
Finally, all our teachers hope that all our students will come back to school for the new academic year and we will make sure that they are given quality education that they deserve.