GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A group of hearing-impaired female students sits at one of the cafeteria tables at the Islamic University in Gaza to discuss their engineering drawings after one of the lectures offered as part of the creative technology diploma designed for hearing-impaired students. The only difference between these students and the others at the university is that they express their points of view by moving their fingers and hands. They are part of the first batch of hearing-impaired students pursuing university education in the besieged Gaza Strip.
When I met with some of the deaf students, Israa Sersawi was the only one who spoke a few words welcoming me. Hearing disability comes in various degrees. While I sat with them, the conversation was carried out in sign language and in words that I barely understood. I made a few signs, and Israa wrote down the words she understood, but we could not maintain the conversation for long. One of the teachers agreed to help by translating for us.
Israa told Al-Monitor, “My father enrolled me at university to obtain a diploma in creative technology. At first I was afraid. I knew nothing about university life, but the anxiety and stress quickly faded, and I am now happy to be a university student.”
Hassan al-Amirin, deaf programs coordinator at the Assistive Technology Center for People with Disabilities at the Islamic University, told Al-Monitor, “After one year of planning, the Continuing Education Deanship created a special diploma for people with hearing disabilities for the first time in Palestine. A hundred and twenty male and female senior high school students started registering in December 2014 to obtain the diploma. The academic year started in March 2015, following admissions interviews and teacher training.”
Amirin added, “Most female students, four batches of them, enrolled in the creative technology diploma, while one batch of male students preferred the second diploma, maintenance for computers and smart technological devices.”
After Israa finished ninth grade, no private or public school admitted her so she could complete her secondary education. This was the situation for all the deaf children in Gaza. Unable to finish high school and go on to university, Israa worked at a hair salon. She preferred not to sit at home. She was then admitted to the Mustafa Rafii School after it opened in 2011.
Hearing disability — mild, moderate, severe as well as profound impairment — affects 1.2% of the population in Gaza, while overall 7% have some sort of disability, according to a 2011 report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Some 90% of the disabled population do not work, and 42.2% have never been enrolled in school.
Khaled Abu Feddah, deputy director of the General Administration of Guidance and Special Education at the Ministry of Education, told Al-Monitor, “Before the opening of the Mustafa Rafii School, the first high school for hearing-impaired students in Palestine, hearing-impaired students were unable to enroll in public high school. Their studies were restricted, only through the ninth grade in some of the private centers affiliated with deaf rehabilitation and education organizations. After the ninth grade, these students were doomed to either enroll in vocational education or become unemployed.”
He added, “In 2010, the Ministry of Education founded the Mustafa Rafii School and provided competent teachers specialized in sign language to teach hearing-impaired students to complete the 10th and 11th grades and then the 12th grade for the first time in 2014. This was preceded by a harmonization of the curriculum applied in public schools, which is of course designed for ordinary students, to make them easier for hearing-impaired students.”
Suhair al-Hajjar, who teaches a computer course for the creative technology diploma, said, “All hearing-impaired students show great enthusiasm toward university education, especially toward the computer course, as they feel it is the most suitable for them and easier to learn than the Arabic or English languages.”
During the English-language lecture, the hall was filled with enthusiasm as students hastened to answer the teacher’s questions about electronic icons, including some from social media. Holding up their hands, some make muffled sounds, while others tap on the table to let the teacher know they want to participate.
Siba Audi, the English teacher, told Al-Monitor that she mainly explains the lecture in Arabic Sign Language, which has been unified across Arab countries. She explained that she also teaches words in English sign language, shows videos of American Sign Language to help them communicate and prepares students to deal with the labor market in case they decide to work in their fields of specialization.
Pursuing university studies is not the only dream for these students. Many want to get a job after university. Israa said, “I want to become an official employee. I am tired of the numerous programs designed by our civil institutions. I want to achieve my dream by pursuing a bachelor's degree and working in the field of computers, which I love.”
Huda Naim, a Hamas parliamentarian, said, “After Hamas' victory in the 2006 elections, the movement sought to activate the Palestinian law specifying a 5% quota of people with disabilities for civil service positions.” Naim confirmed the Legislative Council’s supervision over implementation of the law, but added that “difficult economic conditions resulting from the siege and the consensus governments’ failure to assume its functions lowered the employment rate in general, which affected people with disabilities.”
Despite the milestone achieved by the hearing-impaired students pursuing the creative technology diploma, economic and living conditions continue to prevent a number of deaf people from being able to afford university fees. Amirin said, “Arab and international donors promised to support the diploma and provide financing to students, but reconstruction and internal political division has hindered the fulfillment of these promises.”
Deaf students have yet to fully integrate into the university, which allocated them their own section, which prevents them from interacting with the rest of the students. Their dream of social integration through employment opportunities requires government intervention, which is unlikely under the current political circumstances.