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From a rounded education to making students feel at home, the School for the Deaf and Blind in Ratmalana has rendered valuable service through the ages. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports that a helping hand could ensure a brighter future for the students. There is a strange stillness though it is a usual school day in progress. Girls and boys in uniform pour out of their classes during the interval but the shouting and laughter that one would expect to hear are absent, broken only by sounds of a different kind.

We are in the School for the Deaf at Ratmalana, the oldest and largest in the country, which is nudging the century milestone. "It's like any other school having classes from Grade 1 to 13 following the government curriculum, says Principal M.H. Wijeyratne, explaining that the difference is that they give special attention to children with special needs.

There is formal education for deaf children in the age-group 5-19 years, non-formal education for pre-schoolers and a special programme for infants and mothers. There are also vocational training programmes after school to ensure that when they leave this haven's portals they are equipped with a skill to fend for themselves. The children on the roll number 237 from two-year-olds to 19-year-olds, with a majority also being provided residential facilities. "We have only 56 day scholars," says Mrs. Wijeyratne who has been with the school for 37 long years, 20 as a teacher and 17 as Principal.

When they come to school these children have a "zero" vocabulary whereas a five-plus little one should be talking 3,000-5,000 words. Some can only say "Amma" but call everyone that because they cannot hear, they also cannot talk.

They face a lot of difficulties, says Mrs. Wijeyratne and the school provides most facilities including hearing aids as they come from underprivileged homes. Some children have been abandoned by their parents and are being looked after by guardians and the warmth of the school along with the caring teachers make it a happier home for the children. "They are among their own kind, using not only sign language but also body language. They feel comfortable here," says Mrs. Wijeyratne.

The Education Ministry pays the salaries of the teachers and provides books and uniform material to the children while the Department of Social Services gives a grant of Rs. 50 per resident child per day for their maintenance.

The Resource Development Committee has laboured to introduce modern facilities and technology for these children, the Sunday Times understands. Computers with special software to teach language and math, a multi-media projector, speech therapy equipment and lots more have enabled the school to make vast strides.

It is also an all-round education provided here and many are the trophies proudly displayed in the glass cabinets in the Principal's office the students have won at various sports events. Mrs. Wijeyratne explains how the good grounding they get at the school will set them up for life. Deaf children have a lot of job opportunities, according to her. They are absorbed as data-entry operators, artists, tailors etc as soon as they leave school "because their hands work very fast" and the school has equipped them with skills.

The proof of the strength of the school lies in the fact that those who leave after their education keep coming back. "The Past Pupils' Association is very strong," smiles Mrs. Wijeyratne.

Just a short walk across the grounds brings us to another world���a world of loud music, with three children playing a merry tune on a piano, surrounded by a few more shouting instructions and moving to rhythm.

Walking by holding the wall in their familiar surroundings or tapping along with a white cane, this is the School for the Blind. However, not only blind students, but also those with low vision or have partial- sight and the group diagnosed as "deaf-blind with multiple disabilities" are part of this school, says its Principal, Sandya Kodduruarachchi, listing the total on the roll-call as 238 inclusive of 38 day-scholars.

The deaf-blind can't hear, talk or see. They are children with multiple disabilities, she says, explaining that two specially trained teachers from India are with the school to undertake their rehabilitation.

It is similar to the School for the Deaf, with formal lessons during the day and vocational training such as weaving rattan or home science in the evening. The school provides a range of facilities including those needed for education such as Braille books as well as meals, clothes and medicines while the government provides some books for the sighted students.

Once again, the Resource Development Committee has looked into their needs and provided such facilities as special computers with voice synthesizers to download news etc and convert to Braille, it is learnt.

In a room just beyond the music and laughter, a little boy, seated on a step with a teacher, is squeezing coconut milk, to feel the substance because he cannot see. In the room next-door, it is the 10 o'clock break for several other children, being coaxed to take in some food. These are the children who are deaf-blind.

For the blind children too, many are the job opportunities when they leave school, says Mrs. Kodduruarachchi, explaining that they include counting buttons, teaching music, working as telephone operators or at massage clinics, because though they cannot see, their fingers are nimble.

What these children in the School for the Deaf and Blind need is a helping hand to set them up in life.

Show of talents for funds

The students of the School for the Deaf will display their talents and skills in dance and drama at a variety entertainment 'Pipena Piyum' on July 2, at 6 p.m. at the Ladies' College Hall, Colombo 7, to raise funds for the school.

Tickets are available at the school and at the gate.

A simple meal would go a long way

Where will the next meal come from? This is what worries those who are managing the School for the Deaf and Blind, with the cost of living as well as maintenance costs going up and donations petering out.

The two schools set up way back in 1912 are run on donations by a Board of Trustees of the Anglican Church.

When next you celebrate a birthday or anniversary or would like to bestow merit on a loved one who is no more, why not think of the Deaf and Blind School at Ratmalana. As the number of children in both schools is quite large and may be too hard on an individual purse, a joint contribution from family members or friends would be more do-able.

For the children of these schools, a simple meal would go a long way. The Resource Development Committee appointed by the Board of Trustees (initially under the late Ranjith Jinasena) strive hard to raise funds not only to upgrade the teaching facilities and improve classrooms and dormitories but also for the Meal Donation Programme and the Sponsor A Child Scheme where a person can pay a child's school fees.

The website of the school is www.csdeafblind.org. If you wish to donate a meal, please contact: The Meals Coordinator, Meal Coordinator's Office, Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind, 521, Galle Road, Ratmalana, Sri Lanka, Phone: +94 11 2623601, Fax: +94 11 2611338 or e-mail: mealdonations@sltnet.lk. To sponsor-a-child, please Phone: +94-11-5762336/ 94 77 1393116, Fax: +94-11-2611338 or e-mail: sponsorachild.rdc@gmail.com