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- Monday, July 22, 2013 - From Print Edition

It was a pleasant sunny morning on May 18, 2013 when I found myself at the Ritter Ice Arena, attending the graduation ceremony of the Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf. A record 414 students received diplomas, associates, bachelors, masters and higher degrees.

It was not just a graduation ceremony; it was yet another glorious chapter in the continuing success story of the ‘Grand Experiment’ – the US’ first experiment to educate a large number of deaf students in a hearing college environment. The hearing and the deaf have been integrated at a common campus, the divisive wall between silence and sound has been breached. The hearing and the deaf dream without any discrimination.

The atmosphere in the Ritter Ice Arena was not just jubilant, it resounded with a profound message. Parents, grandparents and spouses of the graduates could scarcely contain their pride and joy at the achievement of the students. Cheers and tears mingled as the students walked the stage in their grad caps and gowns, received their awards and were warmly greeted by the iconic Dr Gerard Buckley, NTID president, RIT vice president and dean amongst a string of other luminaries.

These young boys and girls had dared to dream, had dared to overcome their – so-called – disabilities and had embraced the challenges of the mainstream. The NTID came into existence in 1960 when President Lyndon B Johnson signed the bill establishing the National Technical Institute of the Deaf at a special ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. A large gathering of RIT/NTID supporters, including Robert F Kennedy, stood behind the president as he signed the bill. The LBJ building at RIT is the centre of all activities for students studying at the institution.

As I walked out of the arena, I spotted a few Pakistani and Indian students and their parents walking towards the art centre where parents, students and faculty would mingle over breakfast. Over scrambled eggs and coffee, I managed to extract some information from them, specially the Pakistani families. They spoke candidly of the challenges they faced since the diagnosis of their children.

“We could live with the scarcity of resources, but social unacceptance is an insurmountable obstacle”, said one mother. “We don’t blame society, because nothing has been done to change the mindset of our people. Special education remains under the department of population and welfare. Deafness is still considered a punishment for sins committed by the parents, not just a medical condition. Talking about it as a culture is like growing wheat in rice paddies”, added the father.

I further inquired about the plight of those who didn’t have access to amplification devices, therapy and the opportunity of mainstream education. “In urban cities there are some wonderful institutes like ABSA, DEWA, Idea Reu and Deaf Reach Centre that are doing an admirable job of educating thousands of deaf boys and girls. Most of them enrol children from multiple socioeconomic backgrounds and provide education at the minimal cost of Rs25 per month. They primarily teach them PSL (Pakistan Sign Language) and are providing commendable service to the country.”

The problem arises once these children complete their education or basic vocational programmes. There are no jobs on offer. Although the government announced a mandatory disability quota of two percent for every organisation, this remains largely unimplemented. The situation for the oral deaf is equally difficult. There is no support system or equal opportunity for them in the corporate world. There are a handful of personal success stories, but in the absence of disability rights, they face multiple challenges at the workplace. And despite having the requisite skill sets, have great difficulty landing jobs in the corporate world.”

The NTID was the dream project of Peter N Peterson, a teacher at the Minnesota School who had lost his hearing at the age of 19. In 1930, he published an impassioned plea for a technical college. He dreamt of a technical college for the deaf which in his words “...would lead to bread with butter spread thick upon it. A wild, fantastic dream! Perhaps so. But more fantastic dreams than this have come true, and this dream is not as impossible as it looks at first sight.” (From Dream to Reality by Harry G. Lang and Karen K Conner).

Peterson emphasised the need for cooperation between professionals, philanthropists and the corporate sector. Prior to President LBJ’s signing, and the development that followed, deaf people had minimal participation in the planning process. At the NTID, the deaf professionals and staff members were not just invited to be part of the planning process of the Great Experiment, but were further empowered by the first deaf director and dean. A policy of integration, rather than isolation, was put into action with great success. It was evident that at the NTID, this was not just their job, but their passion.

This article is a humble tribute to the magnificent piece of art and science that is the RIT/NTID. It is also a plea to the ministries of science, education and finance in Pakistan. We can share the dreams of our young deaf boys and girls. They have suffered enough; it is high time we integrated them in our work force. Professionals and educators – deaf as well as hearing – government, private sector corporations and philanthropists can work for technical education, successful employment leading to the participation of our deaf in community living. I pray for an NTID in every corner of the world, starting with Pakistan.

The writer is a speech therapist. Email: [email protected]