The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf
Promoting Excellence in Deaf Education

Making a difference

Ann Underwood, David Bond and Paul Simpson include some of the discussion, advice and recommendations which have been shared with members and others who send enquiries to BATOD about helping deaf children who live in income-poor countries

From time to time BATOD members enquire about how they can contribute something to the lives of deaf children in the developing world. Wanting to do something is laudable, but careful consideration needs to be given to the way good intentions are delivered.

This article highlights a number of issues which have arisen through experiences in income-poor countries, and through enquiries, advice and reports. Some of the issues raised may not be comfortable, but they should be addressed so that damage created by inappropriate action arising through good intentions, might be reduced, avoided or managed better.

This article is not intended to impose barriers It should be used and should develop as guidance to enable and welcome constructive, sustainable and effective support in its many forms. Comments and articles about experiences from members will be most welcome.

We are developing an international section on our website and any experiences which you would like to share should be sent to

Here is some key information setting the context for deaf children and young adults who live in some of the world’s income-poor countries.

Some of the challenges

  • Provision is incredibly varied: some deaf children may be successfully included in mainstream classes of 80 up to 200 – succeeding, despite a lack of resources.
  • A high percentage of deaf children and young people will not get an opportunity to receive an education; many others will be identified as ‘mentally handicapped’ or ‘uneducable’. This may occur even in those countries where there are some schools or other provision for deaf children.
  • In some cases there are no blackboards, no electricity and therefore no lights. Sometimes there is no classroom other than the shelter found under a tree – although much rarer than in the past, this still happens. The walls may be undecorated bricks or blocks; windows may be ventilated breezeblocks, or just gaps in the walls, the floor concrete and the ceiling just corrugated iron roofing!
  • Residential accommodation quality varies substantially. At worst, some is in houses which should be demolished owing to major structural and dangerous defects. There may be no windows or electricity, and bedrooms and living areas may be dark, dank, fetid and mosquito ridden. Cooking may be on external open fires, and all water supplied from nearby streams or unprotected shallow wells. Children may have to sleep on concrete floors without mattresses or sleeping mats, sharing blankets and spreading infestations and disease. Diet may be limited, with little protein and high starch. There may be an absence of constructive activities and involvement in the training routines of daily living, no games and poor communication. All of these issues have featured in some provision visited within the last five years.
  • Some deaf children do not access education because they cannot manage the mainstream curriculum and are rejected by the schools. They may live too far away from the school (for the deaf) and cannot afford the travel or the charges for residential accommodation or for books or meals (which are not always provided free with education). This also applies to resource centres and unit classes.
  • Children often have to stay in their school residence as their homes are a journey of a day or more away. Day and residential pupils may travel by walking (some for two or three days at least!), bicycle or, for those who can afford it, by overcrowded, worn-out minibus, often with no seatbelts or safety systems, driven at reckless speeds along some fairly difficult roads.
  • In some cases, teachers have not been educated beyond basic primary education and are often working to improve their own knowledge and skills (in environments where opportunity to access and benefit from CPD may be non-existent) while teaching their pupils and living on very low wages of about £ 15–30 per month!

Other challenges and impediments

  • People who want to 'go out there' to 'do something for them’ – often in a single short-term visit! Working with is essential, as is supporting sustenance and maintenance of development – inclusive of staff and parent capacity development. More harm can be done by disrupting an inadequate system which is ‘working’, and then leaving it without support and maintenance, than by leaving it to continue until sustained and longterm support for development and change can be established.
  • A wish to supply technologies where there is no infrastructure to support their sustenance, maintenance or development. Also, attempts to provide new technologies and resources too quickly and in quantities or amounts which are beyond the capacity of those implementing and managing them to utilise, sustain and maintain the new approaches, materials/resources.
  • Encouragement to rely on high income countries as ‘the’ models or places to visit or to study in to get an 'education’, which are mostly inappropriate for the social system, economy, curriculum, infrastructure, technology and conditions in which the professional will live and work. Such an 'education' often leads the professional to develop a sense of inadequacy and isolation – an inability to work without the equipment with and for which they have been trained. This problem is often solved by the professional seeking employment and a life away from his or her own country – when they should be an active contributor to development of the provision in their own country.

So there are questions we must ask

  • How can we support professionals and parents in income-poor countries to develop and take full ownership of provision, and of the decisions made in development?
  • How can we support capacity building and training developments in the local area, by and for the indigenous people – so that they can continue developments, training etc, and build on them?
  • How can help be given?

Things to consider before getting involved

How can you make your intervention or support more or most effective? Probably one of the first questions we should ask is: what is the provision which is already available within this income-poor country?

There is often an education system which has catered successfully for some deaf learners. Can this be built on? Usually there is a deaf population. They will usually have their own sign language which may need support to be recognised and developed, but which should not be dismissed by trying to import another sign language or sign system. Such importations may lead to confusion, demeaning the native population of deaf people and devaluing their own native language and their own sign language.

Are there medical and educational systems within the country which make any sort of provision to support deaf people? Could your contribution add to the support which they provide? Or would it be counterproductive? Are there policies and practices within the country which might respond negatively to the type of intervention which you are interested in? How is this addressed?

Other questions to consider

  • Are you able to be committed to, or interested in, long-term support? If not, are there other ways of making sure that your support is used effectively?
  • Will your contribution enable sustained development of provision, or is it just a ‘one off’ effort? What happens after you no longer contribute? How can you make sure that your one-off contribution can be effective?
  • Who is benefiting from your intervention? You? The beneficiaries? Or someone collecting ‘on behalf of…’?
  • Will your contribution be compatible with the social setting, economy and structure for provision in the chosen country? Will it interfere with the responsibilities of the state or other authorities who may be sustaining provision (albeit with low level funding) already but who will withdraw their contribution if others are seen to be providing the support? How do you address this?
  • How cost-effective and support-effective is your intervention? Could you improve this? The journey may cost more than the actual donation, but the long-term value of your support may outweigh this. Who pays for the journey?
  • Is there the technology to support, maintain and sustain your contribution? Is there a way of addressing this, or would it be more practical to identify and address current issues and research possible alternatives?
  • Can you find another way of supporting, which would offer more cost-effective, long-term and sustainable development of provision?
  • Who will manage the aid you provide? If you make a visit, who will make the arrangements and look after you? Will you be taking them away from crucial work? What happens after you have gone? Who will benefit?
  • What other individuals, groups or organisations are providing support? How do you avoid duplication of support? What would you be supporting? Could you make your contribution more effective by joining forces with some of the others who are working in your chosen area?
  • Would your contribution be more effective and sustainable if you were to donate and raise funds for an existing registered, reliable charity? Or if you worked with an existing group on targeted projects, which might involve fundraising and possibly focused visits to support specific projects? What skills can you offer?

What is the message?

This article provides a very comprehensive view of the situation that exists (within my limited experience) in income poor and developing countries around the world.

However, I am bound to say that the impression it gave me when I read it straight through is that it could be rather discouraging to anybody who might be considering such an involvement. I am sure this was not the intention of the article and also realise, again from personal experience, that many of the cautionary notes that are included are entirely legitimate and valid. Indeed I have made some of the same mistakes that the authors very rightly point out as likely to happen.

So, the question I ask is what was the intention of the article? Was it to encourage people to consider getting involved in such situations or was it to put a check on such aspirations yet also add some realism and realistic thinking to the approaches people might take? At the moment I rather fear the article falls between these different intentions.

I wonder if it might be helpful to at least support the issues raised in the article with a balance of personal experience. In that personal experience there would probably be some picture of the enjoyment and satisfaction that can also be gained from an involvement which is worthwhile, meaningful and sustained. I appreciate this is easier said than done but nonetheless think this may well be an additional aim for such an article, namely to encourage people to take part but in a way that will be productive.

A further thought occurs to me is that I wonder whether we would be able to identify one or more people who we know have been involved in different countries and put their names against that country. Thus if anybody was interested in The Gambia my own name could appear or that of my colleagues. Also, for example, Sierra Leone where Monica Tomlin from Herefordshire or Ruth McAree have been working. I imagine that between all of us we have a fairly good coverage of the range of countries within this category as Teachers of the Deaf from the UK have probably worked in the majority of these countries at one time or another. Perhaps it would also be an idea to have a regular spotlight section focusing on one country or another and, within any such article, give an indication of any help that would be appropriate to offer and which could perhaps be directed through the authors of the article.

I am pleased to say that we went to Gambia again on 25 May 2007 for another visit - this time to provide a training course for education professionals called “Cluster Monitors” from each region of the country. These are equivalent to our District/Area Education Officers. The idea was to raise their awareness of, and expectations for, deaf children as the new HARK vehicle has now been delivered to Gambia and should be starting to tour the country testing hearing in the very near future. Thus when deaf children are identified, not only will there be a Teacher of the Deaf travelling with the vehicle who can provide support but hopefully these influential Cluster Monitors will be able to encourage local schools to support their education. I’ll keep you posted on how we get on.

Malcolm Garner