This story started forty years ago. In 1975, young Michael Geary caught meningitis. He survived the disease, but lost his hearing for ever.
“We started working with deaf children”
The toddler’s parents were social workers in Manila, Philippines. “Because of Michael’s handicap we started working with deaf children to learn to help him,” explained his father Richard. With his wife, he launched a “small informal club for deaf teenagers, which we called Deaf Reach.” As it soon became popular, the Gearys started offering sign language education.
Ten years later, colleagues invited them to replicate their model in New Delhi. “In about two years, said Richard, we had 519 teenagers, from different parts of the country who were part of the club. We provided a forum where they could meet, learn English and different life skills, and we also assisted them in getting employment.”
In 1989, though, the Gearys had to leave the country for administrative reasons. “We went to visit a friend who was living in Karachi.” As they could not renew their visas to India, they decided to settle in Pakistan and start the Deaf Reach program one more time.
Being deaf in Pakistan
Hearing disorders are a major public health issue in Pakistan. Today, 5 percent of the population has some form of hearing loss; and 1.5 million children are profoundly deaf.
For these youngsters, life is tough. Too often, their parents believe they are cursed or mentally retarded. And because the majority do not know how to use sign language, they cannot communicate with their kids as much as they should.
In this context, it is not surprising that many hearing impaired children only develop basic language ability. Even the 10,000 deaf students lack communication skills, as the schools do not adapt to their special needs. Sadly, these learning impediments have lifelong consequences, and most of these children will not be able to reach their full potential.
That’s why, in 1989, the Gearys started by helping the deaf youth to gain life skills and get a job. One day, though, the couple was donated “two rooms in a building.” It encouraged them to open a small classroom. “We taught 15 primary-level deaf children, including Michael, from the slum areas of Karachi, said Richard. That grew slowly until we started a formal school in Karachi in 2007.” Since then, the Gearys have opened five other schools and empowered 1,200 deaf students, many of whom come from poor families.
Enriching the Pakistan Sign Language
One of the problems the Gearys have encountered is the scant educational materials for the deaf. The current Pakistani sign language covers daily life activities, but many academic words have no sign-equivalent.
To rectify this major issue, the Gearys took an ambitious, but judicious step. They decided to enrich the Pakistan sign language (PSL) by creating new signs in both the academic and professional fields. That’s how they started working on a PSL Visual Dictionary. They have already referenced or elaborated 5,000 words, but they thrive to include at least 10,000 terms in the lexicon.
And since the dictionary consists of online videos, it makes the learning process easier and more effective. Indeed, each word is signed by an actor, illustrated by a picture, and translated into English and Urdu. Of course, the PSL dictionary is designed to support the deaf in their studies, but it also enables their parents to finally learn how to sign and better communicate with their children.
Yes, they can!
In less than a decade, the Deaf Reach Schools have changed the deaf students’ lives for the best! Amanat, for instance, was five years old when he enrolled in the school of Karachi. “His parents were at their wits’ end as he was a very hyperactive child and they assumed him to be mentally handicapped, said Richard. He is now one of the school’s best students.”
But the Gearys are particularly proud of having contributed to enhance the employability of their students. Of course, many graduates become teachers in the Deaf Reach Schools, and they are among the best ones. But a fair number — 400 in 2013 — have found a job in a private company. In Karachi, five alumni run a KFC restaurant; others work as cooks at the Sheraton Hotel. Even a clothing design company, Artistic Milliners, has recruited 20 students.
These are a few success stories, but they all show that the Gearys have been right all these years. The deaf can not only integrate the labor market; they can also make a positive contribution to the community!