Thobias’s Story

A boy for whom inclusive education is very much a reality.

By Brian Sokol
Thobias con sus profesores
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
17 June 2020

The silence that fills the room stands in marked contrast to the cascade of emotions playing across Thobias’s face and the whirlwind of gestures flying from his hands as he signs his excitement to German. Though no sounds are made, there’s a sensation of noise, a riotous, tumbling conversation is taking place in the classroom: Thobias has just convinced his teachers that they deserve a recess break. It’s time for a quick match of soccer.

Preparándose para el partido de fútbol
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol

“I love to play soccer, I used to play in a team, Nueva Estrella Futbol, but the coach wasn’t good. He would always put me aside. I was discriminated against. When there were friendly matches they would consider me but for tournaments, they would never include me. They wouldn’t even tell me about the tournament. That’s why I left. I would love to go to another club, but my parents don’t let me. It’s a little far away from home,” says the 13-year-old 6th grader, via a sign language interpreter.

Growing up with a hearing disability, Thobias was no stranger to different forms of discrimination as a child.

His parents initially enrolled him in a “special” school for deaf students. However, he found the environment to be challenging. The use of sign language was banned in the school and Thobias and his friends would have to hide in the restroom or out of sight of teachers in order to communicate by gesture, rather than the attempts at vocalization and lip reading that the school forced on them.

Thobias con sus padres
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol
Thobias y su mamá
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol

“Before learning sign language, my life was very boring. I had no friends, everything was boring. I was always wandering around looking at people because I wasn’t able to be part of the interaction. There was no communication, I didn’t understand. For example, when we were at the table I would only eat and look at my family members while they chatted. I was always very puzzled,” recalls Thobias.

Thobias con su mascota
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol


 

When Thobias’s parents, Karimy and Henán, saw just how frustrated Thobias grew in the special education school, they took it upon themselves to create a solution. Not only did they withdraw Thobias from the school for disabled children and themselves begin studying sign language, they committed to creating a school around his needs, and the needs of other children with hearing disabilities. Made possible by an inclusive education law passed in Paraguay when Thobias was very young, Karimy and Hernán founded Escuela Básica Medalla Milagrosa, a bilingual learning environment where children with and without disabilities can study, play and learn together.

Located in Limpio, a short drive from Paraguay’s capital of Asuncion, Escuela Básica Medalla Milagrosa is a model for inclusive education. Classes are taught in both Spanish and Paraguayan sign language, allowing children with and without hearing disabilities to participate equally.

“Professor Germán taught me sign language. he is great, because he is very transparent and true to me. He talks to me about everything at a professional level. For example, he explains to me about bikes, coffee—really, about everything,” says Thobias, speaking about Germán Rodríguez, his school’s sign language instructor or linguistic model. “Learning sign language opened me to a whole new world. Through it, I’ve been able to know the world.”

As a child, German, now 60, also briefly attended a special education school for the deaf, and he was traumatized by the institutional requirements for lip reading and forced vocalization. It’s German’s feeling that “we deaf people are a linguistic minority, we are not persons with disabilities. For example, indigenous populations have their own culture, traditions, values and community. They are from the same origin and place. But we, the deaf community, unlike the indigenous population, are from different places and we need a space to form own our community and culture.” To German, Escuela Básica Medalla Milagrosa is one such space.

“Special education in Paraguay does not teach sign language. Until they do, and provide for the needs for deaf people, inclusive education will not move forward.” “This is the only school with deaf teachers, or teachers with a knowledge of sign language,” says Germán resolutely.

Los profesores de Thobias
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol

One of those teachers is Yenny Moreno, instructor of the sixth grade class that Thobias is part of. This is Yenny’s first year at Escuela Básica Medalla Milagrosa, though she’s been a teacher for 15 years in traditional schools without a strong emphasis on inclusive education. “In this class, five of our students are deaf, and four don’t have disabilities,” says Yenny. “It’s a challenge to teach inclusively, but the motivation and commitment that teachers have here is amazing. You really need to love teaching to meet that challenge. “ She continues, “it has transformed me. It gives me the motivation to try harder in order to meet their goals for learning.”

La maestra Yenny impartiendo una clase.
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol

One of the ways that Yenny is striving to meet students’ needs and goals is through learning sign language. “My experience here is very short but has totally change my perspective and I’ve brought those changes into my home,” she says. Yenny’s daughter Alexandra—like Thobias and his classmates—is a 6th grader. Together, mother and daughter learn and practice sign language. Alexandra, who attends a different school, frequently visits Escuela Básica Medal Milagrosa, where she communicates in sign language with her mother’s students.

El aula de clases de Thobias
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol

“I believe inclusive education benefits society as a whole,” says Yenny. Over time, she believes “it will allow everyone to work, study and interact together without discrimination. Integrating and including people with disabilities will bring positive change.”

“Before, people with disabilities were totally isolated, but today—even though it’s not totally inclusive—you can already see more people with disabilities being an active part of society. I believe that with real inclusion people will be more able to adapt to one another. We will be able to live and work together without discrimination. Instead of deaf people needing to adapt to people without disabilities, we [society as a whole] will adapt to people with disabilities.”

Germán, however, is not quite as optimistic. “The perfect form of inclusive education is when you have the adequate physical space, adapted and with accessible facilities. You need trained teachers who can provide and support students with all their needs and adjustments.” He continues, “Every child has specific needs, you can’t just mix all the children with all the disabilities into one classroom without the knowledge and necessary skills to work with them. That’s not real inclusion—it’s just reality. The teacher isn’t able to support all the different needs. Inclusion is when you give the necessary time and support to each individual student… In Paraguay, inclusion is like a trend. But to be honest, there is no real inclusion. Other than here, deaf people aren’t learning. They don’t acquire the basic necessary skills.”

Thobias en su aula de clases
UNICEF Paraguay/2019/Sokol

For Thobias, at least, inclusive education is very much a reality.

“Inclusion is important. It means deaf people studying and interacting with those without hearing disabilities. It proves we can and should be interacting together. Separation and segregation isn’t good,” says Thobias.

“When I grow up I want to study things related to technology. I’m also interested in law to help vulnerable people. In the morning I want to work as an engineer or electrician or something with cars. I like sports cars. During the night, I want to work as lawyer, private investigator, judge or police,” says the outgoing teen. “I also want to get married. I want to have a non-deaf wife, two deaf sons and a non-deaf daughter. I want my sons to be deaf so I can play soccer with them. However, my wife and daughter will need to learn sign language. It’s a must.”