Hope for hearing each other

Micha Haifa aims to prepare hearing-impaired children for the regular school system.Ethnic and religious differences mean little when young children are trying to overcome a disability. That’s why for more than thirty years, a special center called Micha Haifa and …

Micha Haifa aims to prepare hearing-impaired children for the regular school system.Ethnic and religious differences mean little when young children are trying to overcome a disability. That’s why for more than thirty years, a special center called Micha Haifa and its dedicated multicultural staff has been helping Jewish, Moslem, and Christian children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing work towards a chance at future success.

Helen Keller defined the problem of teaching deaf children language long ago when she observed that “children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others’ lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process.”

Micha Haifa’s mission is to ease the pain and speed the process. Specifically, it aims to prepare children for the regular school system by the time he reaches school going age.

The principal, Ofra Goldsobel declares, “The deaf are not dumb. They have the capacity for speech. Our task is to enable them to use that capacity and become integrated, contributing members of society.”

Founded in 1967, Micha has pioneered many of the methods used to teach hearing-impaired children to communicate. Hundreds of its ‘graduates’ have integrated into mainstream society, and many have entered the professions. A number of them serve on the staff.

The children and parents found at Micha on a given day reflect the diversity of the population in the north of Israel which the organization services – observant and secular Jews, Christian and Muslim Arabs, and new immigrants. The staff treat all with equal dedication and sensitivity, although the need to adapt to different cultures and work in different languages presents an additional challenge to their work.

In one of the rooms of the the Haifa center which is housed in a picturesque building in the historic, in the noisy, German Quarter of the city, three women – a Hebrew-speaking mother, a speech therapist and an occupational therapist -encourage a three-month-old infant to respond to whatever sounds her residual hearing detects.

They will continue their effort to sow the concept of language, until the child is a year old and a cochlea sensor can be implanted in her inner ear, or she is fitted with a conventional hearing aid.

A two-year-old boy can be seen through a second window. With the support of his Arabic-speaking mother, a speech therapist is helping him interpret the unfamiliar sensations that a newly implanted cochlea sensor brings into his consciousness.

A third window shows a group of parents and children playing together, throwing balls, dancing in circles, roughhousing, laughing, and shouting. All of them, including the attendant therapist, seem to be having fun. The object of the exercise is to accustom parents and children to enjoy each other despite their disability.

According to Goldsobel, the children, in time, will realize that sounds are a means of communication. They will learn to socialize in one of Micha’s nurseries, just as hearing children do at their age, while continuing to improve their speech and hearing. Later they will become accustomed to ‘hearing’ children by spending half of their time at a selected regular nursery school. The children will also learn singing, dancing, and movement as essential skills for integration into the mainstream. At the age of six, if all goes well, they will enter a regular elementary school.

The parents are a critical focus of the treatment. Most couples are desolated when they learn that they have a severely handicapped child. Gabi and Michael Lavi say, “When we heard the diagnosis, we felt that our whole world had collapsed.”

Micha’s first job is to help the parents to come to terms with the situation; to convince them that the disability can be overcome, that they will be able to integrate the child into their family – and that they have a vital role in the child’s treatment. Subsequently, the parents and other family members are coached on their part in the education/treatment of the child, and are assisted through professional counseling and the support of their fellow parents.

At present, 33 out of the 80 registered children are Arab Israelis. The staff of the four Arabic nursery schools and two of the rehabilitative day-care centers are Arab, as are a number of the therapists. Several of the Jewish staff also have a working knowledge of Arabic.

Much of the responsibility for overcoming Israeli Arab families’ instinctive denial of the handicap and for integrating them into the institution falls on social worker Maisoon Assadi. She explains that, although the children must be separated on language grounds – the primary objective is to teach language skills – the staff tackle problems as a harmonious team. The children play together and their parents meet in the playground. Particular Arab and Jewish parents might develop a close bond if, as sometimes happens, their children undergo the implant operations or other treatments at the same time.

The festivals of all of the different religions represented at the center are marked in the Institute’s program by all the participants. Thus, all of the children take part in the lighting of Chanukah candles and taste the Passover foods, Father Christmas brings presents to all, and all take part in ceremonies to mark Ramadan. Last year an Arab folklore day was a great success. Arab parents and children wore traditional dress, and offered traditional foods.

Longstanding legislation assures special education for Israel’s handicapped between the ages of 3 and 21, and a more recent law provides support for rehabilitation day-care centers for children between 1 and 3 years of age. These enlightened laws furnish a framework for Micha Haifa’s work, but government funding falls far short of the amount required to sustain it. 80% of the budget comes from Micha’s endowment and donations with fees providing a further 15%.

In addition to the Haifa center, Micha also operates a center in Tiberias, as well as nine nursery schools. In addition to its therapeutic work, it runs nine nursery schools and three day care centers.

One hard fast rule for the organization is that it accepts any and every hearing-impaired child from the area north of Hadera. There is no waiting list, and no child is rejected.

The coming year will be an exciting one for Micha, according to Goldsobel. Construction of a new home for the Haifa center will begin in the next few months. The building will stand in a quieter environment alongside the coast, will provide better acoustic conditions for the centers’ work, and will be large enough to accommodate all the center’s nursery schools. The project is not yet fully funded, but the management is making intensive efforts to raise the shortfall.