Life in a silent world: a child with impaired hearing finds hope

Twelve-year-old Anna Poghossyan’s world was silent for years. Born with a severe hearing impairment, Anna’s inability to communicate left her not only despairingly isolated and lonely, but also without a proper education. Thanks to World Vision Armenia’s intervention, she is enrolled in the local elementary school and developing her speaking and listening abilities with the help of a speech therapist, enabling her to develop the friendships with other children and education she needs to thrive.

Anna lives with her family on a small farm in Katnaghbyur village not far from Talin town in Aragatsotn region, northwestern Armenia. Her father Hrach 39, works at a stone quarry while her mother, Arevik, 31, looks after their two children, house, animals and land.

Anna was two years old when Arevik noticed Anna was not reacting to her voice and preferred to speak with her hands rather than her voice.

Arevik took Anna to a doctor, who diagnosed the girl with the fourth and most severe level of hearing impairment and prescribed the use of a hearing aid. The doctor also advised Anna’s parents enroll their daughter in a special school where she could learn the Armenian Sign Language in order to communicate with others.

The Poghossyan’s heeded the doctor’s advice and, with great sacrifice, sold one of their cows to purchase a hearing aid from Yerevan, as there were not any available in their rural village.

The hearing aid provided some assistance, though it was still difficult for Anna to hear sounds, especially in noisy environments with a lot of background sounds.

They also enrolled Anna in one of the only two educational institutions for people with hearing impairments in Armenia, both of which are located in the capital city Yerevan.

I had heard that children with disabilities have the right to attend regular schools, but my very first attempt to register Anna at the only school in Katnaghbyur village was unsuccessful

“It was a boarding school and Anna could only come home on the weekends. Her teachers said she was crying day and night. I could see that my daughter was lonely and suffering a lot. I couldn’t bear it, so I decided to bring her home and educate her myself,” remembers Arevik.

But unexpected circumstances kept Arevik from being able to effectively home school little Anna. Soon Anna’s grandparents became ill, requiring Arevik to take care of them around-the-clock. By the time they passed away, Anna was 10 years old without any education.

Since neither Anna nor her mother wished for Anna to return to the educational institution for people with hearing impairments, Arevik took Anna to enroll in the local primary school.

“I had heard that children with disabilities have the right to attend regular schools, but my very first attempt to register Anna at the only school in Katnaghbyur village was unsuccessful,” says Arevik.

Arevik learned the cruel reality that in Armenia, enrolling children with disabilities in local schools is an uphill battle. Teachers and principals are frequently unwilling to have children with disabilities in the classroom because they believe the child requires special attention that the school is incapable of offering. In some cases, the teachers and principals are simply intolerant of children with disabilities.

“To register Anna, the school required an official assessment of the Child Protection Unit of the Regional Administration. But I didn’t know how to get that, who I should speak to, or where to start. Everything was so complicated and unknown to me,” recalls Arevik.

It was then social workers of World Vision Armenia’s Talin Area Development Programme (ADP) learnt about Anna’s circumstances.

World Vision Social Worker Zara Aslanyan wrote an official letter to the Head of Child Protection Unit of Aragatsotn Regional Administration, who in turn ordered the principle of the Katnaghbyur School to register Anna as a regular student.

As a result, Anna has been attending school since October 2006. Since she had no previous schooling, she enrolled in the first grade rather than the fourth grade with her peers.

Yet Anna’s struggles persisted. As is commonly the case in Armenia’s local schools, Anna’s teachers regarded Anna as burden who required more work and attention from them.

World Vision intervened by offering Anna’s teachers guidance for how to work with Anna and advocated for Anna whenever necessary.

Anna has the highest level of hearing impairment, which means her hearing cannot be recovered. But with the help of the specialists and her own hard work, her hearing can be greatly improved.

“The teachers had her sit all alone at the back desk in the classroom. We fought to have Anna sit at the front desk of the classroom so that she could see the teachers easily and read from their lips,” says Zara Aslanyan, senior social worker, World Vision Armenia.

“We also offered the teachers to come to the Talin ADP Child Community Centre to see the work of special educators, psychologists and art and speech therapists with the children with special needs,” continues Zara.

World Vision Armenia is also providing Anna with professional assistance. Anna visits a speech therapist twice a week at the Talin ADP Child Community Centre to develop her speaking and listening abilities. It is difficult for Anna to articulate sounds since even with a hearing aid she has trouble hearing them pronounced.

“Anna has the highest level of hearing impairment, which means her hearing cannot be recovered. But with the help of the specialists and her own hard work, her hearing can be greatly improved,” says Agapi Badalyan, Anna’s speech therapist.

Indeed, Anna has made remarkable improvements. In the four months she has been working with Agapi her pronunciation has significantly progressed.

Agapi places colorful bricks with names of different objects in front of Anna and asks her to pronounce the names by herself. “A-R-E-E-E-V” (“sun” in Armenian) is heard quite distinctly. “SHOUN” (“dog” in Armenian) is a bit harder, so they try it several times until is becomes more clear and audible.

Anna is one of the best students in mathematics, Russian language and handicrafts at her school.

“Anna has a very skillful hand. In fact, the teacher of the sewing class is considering having Anna in her class even though it is for older students,” says Arevik with a proud smile on her face.

Moreover, Anna’s classmates are kind and helpful during the classes, making sure Anna understands the lesson and is able to do the homework.

Anna is one of the best students in mathematics, Russian language and handicrafts at her school

There are some 3,500-4,000 people living with hearing impairment in Armenia today, according to Havat, a NGO that conducts speech development training sessions for children with hearing impairment and provides them with acoustical devices.

World Vision Armenia has been working to integrate children with special needs into mainstream education and the community since 1998.

Since 2004, 230 children with special needs attended the first grade after completing special educational courses at World Vision’s inclusive kindergartens and child centers.

This year, World Vision has trained 88 nurses and educators from inclusive kindergartens and 180 teachers from educational institutions for children with disabilities.

World Vision is organizing workshops, exhibitions and other public events to advocate for and raise community awareness of the rights of children with disabilities.