Something to Talk About

On the wooden bench in the yard of the Open School in Haifa, Stav Ozri of the fifth grade and Gaya Tenenbaum, who is in third grade, were sitting yesterday. The two had prepared Jewish New Year greeting cards as part of a personal "big buddy" project ("honhut ishit") and, as Stav explained, "also because this is our first meeting." Stav, who has suffered from a hearing disability since the age of 5 and has been at the school since first grade, is the older buddy. Gaya has written with a shiny bright blue felt-tip pen, at the top of her Rosh Hashanah greeting, "To my dear Mom," and she immediately begins to talk about her parents, while Stav, who has forgotten her hearing aid at home, focuses her gaze on the lips of her younger buddy.

"Without the apparatus, I hear very faintly," Stav explains. "I have to rely on lip reading and for that, I have to look at the person's face."

Of some 400 children in the school, 12 are hard of hearing. Despite their handicaps, the professional team at the school decided that they should be integrated with the rest of the pupils in all of the school's extracurricular activities, while special efforts are made to improve the communications between them and the other children in the school. As a special gesture, the school administration this year decided to open an elective course in which children who hear normally are taught to read sign language.

"Usually the community of people with hearing disabilities sticks to themselves, because of the problems in communicating and because they have to read lips instead," the school's hearing therapist, Relly Schwartz, explains. "They live in a society in which everyone hears and they have to 'survive' with their handicap in that society."

Schwartz says that the way to get them integrated into society is to invest in both those who have hearing disabilities and the children who hear well. The school principal, Ariella Bahalul Diamand, explains that, "the idea is that there's a place for everyone everywhere. In the interaction created by the buddy system, such as we see with Gaya and Stav, all kinds of special things happen when the younger pupil begins to admire his older buddy who, in return, gains more self-confidence and learns to speak."

Most of the children with hearing disabilities study in special classes that the Haifa Municipality has set up, while a small percentage of them study in the regular classes. In the special classes, emphasis is placed on maintaining a quiet atmosphere and there is special apparatus that assists the children with their disabilities. "I want to be a regular child," says Matan Herling, who is part of the regular sixth grade class. "I want to have a lot of friends and to have a lot of people to talk to in the future."

His homeroom teacher, Meirav Huneh, also wanted to be a "regular" pupil 10 years ago. She had started to lose her hearing at the age of three but she nevertheless continued to study in a regular framework. "It was not easy from the social point of view," she says. "I was the only one among a lot of children who couldn't hear, and I could not always understand. I always sat in the front row of the classroom to read the lips of the teacher and by the end of the day, my neck would hurt." Today, she recommends that hard-of-hearing children sit a few rows back to avoid straining their necks.

As a teacher, Huneh tries to keep her own personal experiences from childhood in mind. "The teacher must speak with her face toward the children so they can read her lips and repeat the sentences," she adds.

Meanwhile, in the school yard, the two girls are busy with coloring in the greeting cards. "I cannot speak sign language yet with Stav," says Gaya. "I don't know enough yet." Stav, who did not manage to hear what she said, asks her to repeat the sentence. Gaya raises her head, smiles patiently and explains to her at length what she has just said.