Navigating hearing disabilities in Morocco

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Round Earth Media
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Published with permission from Round Earth Media 

By Maria Luisa Frasson-Nori

RABAT, Morocco – In an inconspicuous brown building sandwiched between a tire shop and a parking garage, the door to apartment No. 3 is different from the others. It doesn’t have a bell – instead, a bright red flashing light alerts those inside that someone is at the door.

No one could hear a bell. Everyone inside is deaf.

Ruba Hamdaoui, 21, is a regular here. Her full backpack and the stack of notebooks she cradles in her arms suggest that it’s exam week. Still, she greets visitors with an open smile. Hamdaoui is one of the relatively few deaf Moroccans to have graduated from high school, and she is now a third-year mathematics student at Mohammed V University in Rabat.

Not that learning has ever been easy. Teachers were mostly unwilling or unable to deal with her disability. “I wanted to leave school,” she said. “I cried all the time at home without telling my parents.”

Lina Squelli, 35, of the Ministry of Education and the Charaf Association of the deaf at apartment No. 3. By Sawsan Ahnouss

According to Morocco’s Ministry of Education, around 21,000 Moroccan children between the ages of 4 and 15 have hearing disabilities that make it difficult to follow the public school curriculum. Although 95 percent of all children in the country are enrolled in school, only 15 percent of deaf Moroccans under the age of 20 have received a formal education, according to a global report survey in 2008 by the World Federation of the Deaf.

It has been nearly 20 years since the government launched an effort to integrate children with disabilities, including the deaf, into regular classrooms. The government also ratified an international agreement on the rights of people with disabilities, and issued its own draft law in late 2015. It is now working to create a unified sign language for a country where regional differences and trial-and-error teaching methods have dominated.

But over the years, funding and follow-through have been lacking. There are few schools equipped to deal with the deaf, and children with hearing disabilities benefit little from being in regular classrooms. Even if there is a school in their city, it may be too far away. So they tend to stay home. And then, there are the teachers.

“There are no trained teachers who know how to deal with people with disabilities,” said Lina Squelli, 35, who earned a master’s degree in economics despite being born deaf, and now works for the Ministry of Education. “And they don’t care if you get the lessons or not; it’s not their problem.”

Non-governmental organizations, commonly known here as associations, have stepped in to fill the gap.

Some have formed stand-alone schools, and others are organized in classrooms within public schools.

Hamdaoui and Squelli are members of one called Charaf, located in apartment No. 3. Members can meet other deaf people, take non-degree classes, and get tutoring. Squelli helps Hamdaoui by translating her sign language.

Officials acknowledge that they depend on these associations – but don’t fund them.

“The ministry doesn’t provide any financial support for the deaf associations,” said Anouar Boukili, head of the committee on disabilities in the Education Ministry, even though the private groups always have assumed full responsibility for educating the deaf.

So it falls to organizations like the Attawassol Association for Deaf Children in Tangier, which was started two year ago, to educate as many children as they can.

Murals along the outer walls of the classrooms at the Al Amal Association in Fes are adorned with illustrated explanations of words like “flower” and “bicycle” in Moroccan sign language for even hearing students to see. By Sawsan Ahnouss.

At the back of an empty gravel parking lot, a locked blue gate encloses the three-story building of the school, where elementary-school age students run outside to play during recess.

Ninety-seven students, from 5 to 19 years old, are enrolled. Most of them probably would not be in school if it weren’t for Attawassol; the nearest similar school is three hours away.

“None of us knew anything about deafness, anything about the deaf community, anything about teaching deaf children,” said Asmaa al-Fihri, 46, vice president and one of the founding members of the association. What she had noticed in her work with another organization, which helped orphans and widows, was that many people in the deaf community needed help. “It was emotions that pushed us to this project.”

Attawassol is already one of most successful schools for the deaf in Morocco. Every student in two consecutive classes has passed the national 6th grade exam, something deaf students who go to public school have a hard time doing.

Only one other association, the Lalla Asmaa School in Rabat, teaches middle school classes. Otherwise, due to lack of funding or experienced teachers, deaf associations do not provide any education beyond elementary school.

The Attawassol association says that in recognition of their accomplishments, the government is planning a high school for the deaf in Tangier as part of a larger project to renovate the city. Al-Fihri says she will have students lined up to go to class when the new school opens.

Habiba Hamlichi, 42, said she has noticed marked improvements in her 10-year-old son’s temperament since he started going to Attawassol. He had dreamed of going to school, she said, but “he used to be angry and cry all the time.”

“Now he’s doing so well in school,” she said. “He always does his homework.” 

The only way such families can send their children is by bus, which the school provides. The official tuition for each child is 700 Moroccan dirhams, the equivalent of 70 USD, a year, but only two students can afford to pay the whole amount.

Although funding, which depends on private donors and fundraising efforts, is a constant problem, al-Fihri said that a lack of experienced teachers is the biggest headache.

“There is no base,” she said. “You have no human resources. We have to learn first and train people.”

Associations that can’t afford their own building sometimes use classrooms in public schools, integrating their students into the school life of hearing children.

Students of the Al Koutoubia Association in Marrakech demonstrating a common greeting sign in Moroccan sign language. By Sawsan Ahnouss.

The al-Amal association in Fez started with three students in 1995. It now nestles its four classes in the back corner of the Fatih October public school. Murals along the outer walls of the classrooms designated for deaf children are adorned with illustrated explanations of words like “flower” and “bicycle” in Moroccan sign language. They are placed where hearing students can see them, too.

Chriti M’barek, a teacher at al-Amal, said it is an advantage for deaf children to be in the public school.

“We’re telling them they’re just like the others,” said M’barek, who works with 64 deaf children. “They come in from the same entrance.”

Although both models have their strengths, Squelli said the best option would be a public, standardized education that caters to the needs of deaf students.

“We need an independent educational system for deaf people,” said Squelli, who is working on a Ministry of Education project to unify sign language. “They should have a unified sign language and it should start from preschool.”

The Education Ministry is backing researchers who are creating a software program for teachers to help improve literacy among deaf children, and document sign language. The program includes a sign language dictionary with more than 3,000 words, and technology to assist deaf users with Arabic language, science, math and literature.

Efforts to distribute the software around the country have opened the door to increased collaboration among schools, and led to one of the first attempts to systemize education for the deaf. Hamdaoui and Squelli say they hope those with hearing disabilities will no longer have to settle for inferior schooling.

“We need to treat deaf people as normal human beings,” said Hamdaoui.

Sawsen Ahnouss contributed to this report. This article was produced in conjunction with an SIT Study Abroad program in Morocco and Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that is supporting the next generation of international journalists.