September 4 2012

How can a deaf child learn to read and write?

In 2008, when a Bolivian mother welcomed a little boy into her home in an SOS Children’s Village, she pondered as she realised the challenges they both faced. What happened next united the entire family as they ensure that disability does not stifle the five-year-old's future.

Learning to improve life quality in Bolivia © R.Fleishanderl
Learning to improve life quality in Bolivia © R. Fleischanderl

How respiratory infections led to hearing loss

 Before his first birthday, Juan regularly suffered from common colds. For a variety of reasons, his mother was unable to care for him and his condition was left untreated. Respiratory illness followed and he eventually ended up in the care of Nancy Durán, who welcomed him into her family at the SOS Children’s Village Cochabamba.

On entering the village –in mid-2008 – it was clear that the toddler has a hearing impairment. The condition was identified as hypoacusis. Juan’s loss of hearing was severe in his left ear and moderate on the right. This damage, experts said, arose from inadequate treatment of the respiratory illness he had suffered in his early childhood. His frequent colds were not treated on time and thus the organs of the inner ear were damaged.

A race against time

Doctors informed Nancy that his language development will be determined when Juan is approximately eight years of age. In other words, he has until then to learn how to speak; thereafter the window of opportunity will diminish. Immediate professional support was needed, as every day was precious.

Without delay, Nancy researched and sought the advice of experts. The Fey Alegria Audiology Institute of Cochabamba told the SOS mother what she needed to know. It would prove to be a challenge and a race against time for all concerned. The good news was that a hearing device for Juan could partially correct his hearing loss. The bad news was that it cost up to USD 7,000, an amount that is well beyond the reach of the average Bolivian family. Ever positive, Nancy knew what could be done. For her and her family, it was time to learn new skills and a new language.

Her training involved almost a year in the company of two specialist tutors, one of who was sponsored by the Department of Human Development at the Municipality of Cochabamba. Training involved various disciplines ranging from drama, games, music and child psychology. There, Emilio Sanchez, a youth worker with SOS Children’s Villages explained, “this type of training is seldom given and is restricted to special family situations. It is not normally available in Cochabamba”. The availability of training is based on the level of demand within the community at a given time. Therefore, an element of luck and determination is involved – Nancy had both, which enabled her to teach her son to talk and communicate through sign language.



Children supporting one another as disabled face discrimination © D. Sansoni
Children support one another as disabled face discrimination in violation of their rights © D. Sansoni


When siblings mattered most

A common language is vital within a family to develop normal relationships. The older children have now learned sign language and the younger ones in turn are learning from them. As Juan and his family now converse through sign language, his speech and pronunciation is improving by the day. Reading and writing is also progressing at a pace that gives Nancy reason to be proud of her little boy and the family who support him.


For healthy children elsewhere -lacking the care of a supportive family- an untreated respiratory infection can be fatal. Today, over 600,000 disabled Bolivians live in poverty, almost half of whom are illiterate. This sad situation endures due to the lack of support and educational opportunities. Disabled people across much of Latin America face severe discrimination in violation of their human rights. Infanticide, isolation in institutions, and family neglect is common. Through the support he receives at the SOS Children’s Village, Juan can prosper, as every child should.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.