Opening a new world for the aurally handicapped

It was an impressive and moving book launch, blessed at the inception by recitations from all the major religions practised in our country as Shamila (Nishu) Kurukulasooriya stood tall on stage to describe in her own way, her efforts in producing a set of books for deaf children in Sri Lanka.

The books have been developed for deaf pre-schoolers to study Sri Lankan sign language and essentially as a guide for parents with deaf children and their teachers. They also serve as an important guide with instructions for finger spelling.

The sign language used by Shamila in the books, which has been developed by the National Institute of Education, is essentially for the aurally handicapped in Sri Lanka. The UK has its own sign language for the deaf and so has the US, though there are common features in all sign languages. The real value of these books is that it fills a vital lacuna, for those who are born deaf in this country, groping in the dark in their thirst for knowledge.

Though she herself was born with a serious hearing impairment and indeed, initially encountering drawbacks and difficulties in her own learning endeavours, Shamila is today a highly accomplished young woman, a source of pride to her parents, her family and friends. First, she is a highly talented artist. She has held exhibitions in Colombo, at one of which, a colour painting of the Sri Lanka ODI cricket team of 1986, a veritable labour of love, was stolen!

Today her main professional interest is as a graphic designer and she runs her own successful graphic design business in the US, named K-GRAFIX. Shamila obtained her BA cum laude, in Advertising Art from Gallaudet University, Washington DC and went on to join the Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia, USA to complete two Master of Fine Arts degrees in Illustration and in Graphic Design respectively.

Her commendable project began around 2008 when someone mooted the idea to produce a dictionary for deaf children in Sri Lanka. She was quick to realize that the children, apart from being deaf , were hopelessly handicapped by not being able to recognize even the alphabet, (let alone refer a dictionary). She also noted that several older deaf children, in their early teens, were learning to write the alphabet for the first time.

Shamila’s primary concern thus was to focus on pre-school deaf children between the ages of one to six. Through her own experience she knew that these children required more time for learning unlike children with the ability to hear. So the idea was born of producing a set of illustrated handbooks for parents and teachers of children with hearing impairments.

Highly motivated to give children the opportunity she herself had been provided as a child she began the project with a passion and commitment. She has had the willing assistance of local resource persons, the kindred people, whom she had to interact with locally; the National Council for the Deaf; the staff of the Ratmalana School for the Deaf and many others familiar with the subject of teaching the deaf. She formed and led a team of seven teachers from schools for the deaf and sign language researchers from all over the country, all of them deaf like herself.

The books have been produced in all three languages: Sinhala, Tamil and English. Shamila herself designed the accompanying illustrations and diagrams. Her parents and siblings have given her all the encouragement and logistical backing ( as they have done throughout her life in all her endeavours). Her husband, a computer engineer, and her daughter, little Chloe, have been always by her side all the way through.

Shamila’s mission is not yet over. She has plans and dreams – to design a Deaf Teachers’ Training Manual; complete a children’s dictionary for the deaf; write a Book of Common Phrases in Sign Language, as well as make available her current set of books on DVD by December this year. Knowing her resolve, one is assured that these will cease to be dreams soon. But first, she has begun with this priceless gift to humanity.

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