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‘’When a deaf person is talking about deafness, it has greater impact.’’

Published Date: 21 Aug 2023

How deaf trainer Sarna uses her life experiences to support children all over the world

This blog features the story of Sarna Shah, who was born hearing into a loving family in Bangladesh. Sarna became deaf after a childhood illness, but despite accessibility challenges is today a dedicated and inspirational trainer nationally and internationally.

‘‘I was seven when I had meningitis. The world become totally silent around me within a few days. There were no deaf people in my family or in my locality, even. I always thought I was the only person without hearing in the world. I always felt different and being in an invisible bubble.’’

Sarna’s parents took her to a doctor who recommended a cochlear implant, but her family could not afford one. Sarna learnt to lipread and would carry a notebook so people could write down things for her she did not understand. She credits this with her love today of the written word.''Even though I was a talkative child, it took me one year to start speaking confidently again. It isn’t easy to talk back to a silent world. My family and friends’ support gave me the confidence, I knew I was heard, I was understood. Still, I was never confident to speak to strangers. I was kind of ashamed of my deaf voice.’'

A year after her illness Sarna went back to school, but it was a mainstream one with no idea how to support a deaf student. They originally did not want to admit her but her father insisted she continue her schooling.

''I hated school, I had no friends, couldn’t understand what teachers were saying, couldn’t absorb the lessons at all. I sat in the classroom, looking at the clock, waiting for the classes to be over. Teachers tried their own ways to include me, they made me sit in the front row, asked my classmates to help me to understand homework, took special care of me when needed. Still, not everything worked, they had 60 other children to take care. But I believe that they tried their best. If only they had knowledge about inclusive education!’’

Despite accessibility difficulties, Sarna got top marks in her exams. She was invited to a function the Bangladeshi Deaf Association held to celebrate deaf students who passed their board exams. There, for the first time, she met other deaf people. Before this, she didn’t realise other deaf people existed. Sarna saw deaf people signing and was intrigued to learn the language, but there was no one teaching it anywhere near where she lived. Sarna went to university and despite her academic success, found looking for employment difficult.

''I had the highest degree from the most reputed university of the country still I couldn’t even dare to apply for a job. High unemployment rate and lack of accessibility made the job searching process tougher for me.’’

Two years after she graduated she began to work at Centre for Development and Disability (CDD), Deaf Child Worldwide’s partner in Bangladesh. Sarna is now a Technical Officer, supporting teachers and caregivers of deaf children to overcome the barriers they face. At CDD, Sarna learnt Bangla Sign Language and uses it to communicate with other deaf people and the deaf children she supports.

‘'When I started to work under the DCW supported project at CDD, I was being called a role model, which wasn’t very comfortable for me. I felt I wasn’t worthy to be a role model, so why am I being labelled as one? Then I went to the field and found out how deaf children and their parents are being inspired just by seeing me with a job and a degree. Right then, I knew I had the power to inspire them. And I have a greater responsibility, I have to show them the way. My experience is that people tend to listen more attentively when a deaf person is talking about deafness. It has greater impact.

‘‘From my experience I know teachers and parents usually don’t know how to support a deaf child. They try but mostly in vain. Deaf children are usually people-shy and feel inferior so they don’t speak out loud about their needs.’’

Working at CDD has provided further opportunities for Sarna. She has attended international trainings and workshops where she met deaf people from all over the world.

‘‘I was surprised to see the successful deaf professionals, international leaders. I met deaf and hard of hearing leaders and interpreters from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Venezuela, Africa, Laos. The rich and diverse deaf cultures amazed me.’’

Sarna teaches about deafness nationally and internationally. Common misconceptions are that deaf people have a low IQ, and that deaf people cannot ever learn to speak.

''Sometimes people don’t take you seriously. But it’s also impactful when people see a deaf professional along with hearing peers facilitating as equal, it makes them realise what a deaf person can do if the right accessibility is given. I can relate the topics with my personal life, providing real life examples.

‘‘I get to meet people from all over, I get to know their thoughts and beliefs, what they feel about disability and deafness. I try to change their mindset and sometimes it’s successful, which gives me immense happiness. If I can change the mindset of one teacher or official, it can have a positive impact on the deaf children who will be receiving their support.’’

Sarna has taught on Deaf Child Worldwide’s Introduction to Deafness training course and appeared as a panellist at our webinar Language in the Early Years.

Sarna has completed the United Nations' Bridge training programme. It supports people with disabilities to develop an inclusive perspective on development to meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.