Grad student works to transform Deaf education in India

Graduate student Arathy Manoharan spent her winter break setting up a fun cultural exchange between Deaf children at Bajaj Institute of Learning in India (pictured) and Kendall Demonstration Elementary school in Washington, D.C.
April 18, 2014

Five years ago, Arathy Manoharan knew nothing about Deaf culture. Now, after an international journey of self-discovery, she is determined to share lessons she’s learned on the Hill with Deaf educators in her home country.

Her goal is to be a consultant for bilingual Deaf education in India after she completes her M.S. in Deaf Education at McDaniel. She plans to explore how resources at Deaf schools in the U.S. can be shared with Deaf schools there upon completing the degree in May 2015. In India, there are few resources, few success stories and not enough Deaf role models, she explained.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel [in India]. We can tweak it to fit our needs,” she said.

She spent her winter break making connections and building relationships with schools in India. While there, she used Skype and a laptop to link Deaf children at the Bajaj Institute of Learning (BIL) with students from Kendall Demonstration Elementary School in Washington, D.C., as “e-pals,” an electronic take on pen pals.

The kids, never shy, asked and answered questions about favorite foods, weekend pastimes and cultural differences, practicing their sign-language-to-English translation skills along the way.  

Grad student works to transform Deaf education in India
The students used Skype to sign with their counterparts on opposite continents as they learned about each other’s cultures and practiced their sign-language-to-English translation skills.

“The kids were so excited. That was the best, best part,” said Manoharan. “Their enthusiasm to learn, their eagerness to have this opportunity to interact with anyone who can move their hands was the most rewarding part.”

She’s far from where she began in 2009, while pursing a master’s in English Literature at the University of Delhi. That’s when she saw, “Sweet Nothing in My Ear,” a film about a Deaf and hearing couple struggling to decide whether to give their Deaf son a cochlear implant.

It revealed to her a new world, one that fascinated her. Manoharan began studying Indian Sign Language (ISL) and immersed herself in the local Deaf community. Her ISL instructor was the first Deaf person she’d ever met, and before seeing that movie, it hadn’t occurred to her that someone could be Deaf and proud of it – an effect of the culture she grew up in.

Deaf education in India is based on outdated methods that make it hard for Deaf students to succeed, leaving few role models to inspire Deaf children and giving few Deaf people the opportunity to change the attitudes of ill-informed hearing people, explained Manoharan. It’s a cycle she is determined to break.

During the e-pal project, children from both continents shared the opportunity to challenge their assumptions about the world and gain exposure to other cultures, but Manoharan also offered the BIL children the chance to interact with the role models they lacked in India. Over Skype, they signed with two of Manoharan’s friends back in the States: Kelsey Mitchell, a hearing person who signs fluently, and Bilal Chinoy, a Deaf person who grew up in India and now works at a university. For many of the children, it was eye-opening.

Grad student works to transform Deaf education in India
The Indian students, who lack Deaf role models in their own country, were excited to sign with Bilal Chinoy, a native Indian and Deaf person who works at Gallaudet University.

All of this was accomplished with one laptop and Internet access, an attempt by Manoharan to demonstrate to the teachers how technology can bring hands-on learning to the classroom.

When she finished her graduate studies at Delhi in 2011, having learned ISL along the way, she took a job as a teacher in the Applied Sign Language Studies program at Indira Gandhi National Open University – the first program of its kind in the country. The experience added fire to Manoharan’s passion for Deaf studies.

She loved her job, but felt it was unfair to her students to continue in her position without developing good teaching skills. “I realized I had no idea what I was doing,” she said.

She found McDaniel College after noticing it kept appearing on the curriculum vitae of faculty at Gallaudet University and got in touch with Mark Rust, an associate professor of Education and coordinator of McDaniel’s Graduate Deaf Education program – but she faced an unexpected challenge.

She couldn’t pass the required American Sign Language (ASL) proficiency test. Coming to Westminster all the way from India, unable to enroll in the graduate program and therefore unable to get a student visa, Manoharan could easily have been discouraged. Instead, she had an informal 24/7 crash course in ASL from her Deaf Indian roommates that summer.

In the fall, she was not only accepted into the program, but she landed a graduate assistantship in the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs as well. Manoharan was one step closer to her dream.

Now, while working on her master’s thesis, Manoharan is raising money to support workshops in Deaf schools in India and to bring Indian teachers and students to a conference at Gallaudet.

“I can’t thank the people on this campus enough for making my dreams come true,” she said.