Dreams come true thanks to the digital book
Towards educational inclusion in Paraguay
A dream is brewing in a small school in Paraguay. A digital book with sign language inspires girls, boys and adolescents with or without disabilities to achieve their goals. Inclusion fulfills dreams.
When he was a child, Thobías had a hard time going to his first school. Being sociable and a soccer fanatic he could not understand that he was prohibited from expressing himself in sign language with his teammates. They only allowed him to vocalize or lip-read. It was very difficult for Thobías, recalls his mother, Karimi Yaluff: “He was very frustrated, he didn't want to go anymore. But that encouraged us to look for new alternatives.” Like many other families, Thobías's did not find a school that was receptive to him in his early years.
During a hot morning in October 2022 in Limpio, a small Paraguayan city about 20 kilometers from Asunción (the capital of this landlocked country without sea access in the heart of South America) when the students of the Medalla Milagrosa School, located on a narrow street in Villa Madrid, began to arrive.
In this school, which is small in infrastructure but giant in its educational commitment, all of its students learn to communicate in sign language. From preschool to ninth grade, classes are taught using Spanish or Guarani, and mediated by a sign language interpreter, who gives their lessons in this modality. This is where Thobías is currently in ninth grade. He is now 16 years old, has many friends, plays sports, and has every intention of fulfilling his dreams of being a professional soccer player.
The Medalla Milagrosa [Miraculous Medal] School is a private subsidized school and for 15 years it has implemented a system in which all the inhabitants of its educational community can communicate with sign language. It has also adapted its classrooms and hallways with ramps so that students in wheelchairs can enter classes. The reason for all this is inspired, precisely, by Thobías, the youngest son of Professor Karimi Yaluff, principal and founder of the school. “We wanted a real education for Thobías but we couldn't find a school where he could develop. It took a lot, that's why we decided to dedicate ourselves to this and that's how our school was born, which in principle was aimed at early childhood, with an emphasis on boys and girls with disabilities”, says Yaluff.
The school grew and managed to become known among families seeking an inclusive education. From having 14 students to begin with, today Medalla Milagrosa has 126 students, 70% of which have some kind of disability. Everyone learns and communicates in sign language most of the time, even students without disabilities. “We were born with the idea of being a school for boys and girls with disabilities, but later we understood that the best thing is to create a system where students learn that, beyond physical issues and differences, we are all equal and we all have to access the same education” says the teacher.
Thobías goes to Medalla school in the morning, where he is a benchmark. When he goes out into the yard, they greet him, ask him questions, he talks to the teachers, all in sign language. In the afternoons he goes to his soccer practices, his favorite sport. He practices soccer at a local club of Limpeño league, where he goes in the company of Esteban, his classmate since first grade and one of his best friends. Esteban is a listener, a term used to refer to people who do not have problems listening.
While Esteban plays the play station with Thobías, conversing with adolescent complicity, but in sign language, he says: “I really like being at the Medalla school. It makes you feel like there are no differences between people, just different ways of communicating.” Lorena, another classmate of Thobías who also can hear, says that, at first, she did not feel comfortable at school because she did not understand sign language communication well. But now, after been in this institution for years, she affirms that it is the best thing that could have happened to her. “Understanding with my hands what the other person is saying to me, understanding what they feel, what they want, for me it is very important, I feel that it is very nice to learn this because I am sure that it will help me to help many people”, says Lorraine.
A book to dream about inclusion
In the third grade at Medalla School, the teacher Jessica is in Science class. The students follow the exercises attentively. All at the same time. Some listen to a narrated audio and others watch a sign language interpreter that appears on the screen, so that everyone, hearing or not, can understand what they are developing. The attention of the boys and girls in this grade is focused on the accessible digital book, which since this year has been implemented in this school as a pilot plan for a more ambitious program that seeks to install this same system in all schools in the country. The goal is that all students, regardless of their way of learning, can follow the lessons and classroom dynamics.
It is a UNICEF project that is committed to achieving inclusive education in schools and colleges in Paraguay. The accessible digital book was prepared by technicians, specialists and educators from the Ministry of Education and Sciences (MEC) and the organization Paraguay Educa.
The main criteria on which they worked to produce this material was to make it fully accessible to all students, says Alejandro Cañete, education coordinator at Paraguay Educa. The team of specialists from UNICEF, Paraguay Educa and the MEC worked on a material that can be read, listened to, and reproduced through various forms of access to information, which are activated according as per the student's demand.
"What we did was to take the paper format to the digital format, but with the incorporation of the various measures of accessibility to information, among which is sign language," explains Cañete. The accessible digital book is a great opportunity to offer boys and girls in Paraguay, whether they have disabilities or not, the possibility of having the same learning, says Cañete, who considers this project to be very innovative. “I think this can really change our society. I feel that it is a first step, a very important experience” says Cañete.
The teacher Jessica Yuruhán has been working at the Medalla Milagrosa school for ten years and is a family member of deaf people. She assures that the educational environment makes a very important difference in the development of people with hearing disabilities. “My dad is deaf, and at home we are four sisters. Two are deaf and two are hearing. If he or they had the opportunity that the students at our school now have to communicate, to express themselves with their hands, I am sure they would have had a better quality of life”, says Professor Jessica. For the teacher, the accessible digital book has turned out to be a great strategy to get the boys and girls to have a greater interest in the classes. “What we have here is very interesting because it has all the pedagogical processes, previous experience, research, analysis, and the final result. So, it is a material that helps us teachers and the children a lot”, says Jessica.
Alexander is a hearing impaired 10-year-old boy who is in fourth grade. In his class they also use the accessible digital book, and he says that thanks to this material it has been easier for him to grasp some exercises because he already has his sign language interpreter built into the material. With a wide smile that covers his face, Alexander says that his dream is to be a doctor and that he is going to study to make it a reality. Using sign language, he assures that doctors save lives, help people, and that is why he wants to be a doctor.
Hernán Fretes, Thobías's father, also works at the school and says that the dream they now have in the institution is to build a larger school, on land they have acquired in the same neighborhood of Villa Madrid in the city of Limpio. Meanwhile, in this patio the students gather in circles and play. There is a group, from the fifth grade, that decided to make a round to talk. Others, like Alexander and José, decided to play a game of checkers on a chess board.
“They are lovely children. They feel useful, they feel that they are valued,” says teacher Liliana González, who oversees the fifth and sixth grades. Liliana says that when she arrived at school, she did not understand sign language at all and since she was in the institution she began to study. In fact, on Saturdays – when there are no classes – or during the week at night, the school has classes for teachers or those interested in general. “It changed my way of seeing things as a mother, as a teacher, because one learns with these boys and girls, and the relationship becomes impressive. I am sure that this will have a positive impact on Paraguayan education” says the teacher.
A challenge to change education in Paraguay
In the afternoon, Thobías talks with Esteban at his house. They left the play station and now they are watching international soccer, an activity they almost always share, before going to practice. Thobías knows each player and their stories. He loves soccer. He has jerseys from various clubs, but he assures that he is a fan of Cerro Porteño, although he also likes Libertad.
For Thobías, the sign language is one more right that people have, it is like acquiring, effectively, one more language. “I want to help the children, I want to help us have a more involved society,” he says. Esteban, who is next to him, acts as an interpreter during the conversation.
César Martínez, general director of inclusive education of the MEC, points out that this project of accessible digital books is one of the first to be developed in the region. In Martínez's opinion, this project could be a fundamental element in the process of Paraguay to guarantee an education that is truly inclusive. “Teaching in diversity is a debt that we still have. For this reason, this project is extremely important because it involves the teacher in the learning process, so that is somewhat more participatory with the student,” says the official. For Martínez, this process must be carried out from early childhood, so that children understand that they are all the same but that they simply have different ways of learning, of communicating.
Rafael Obregón, UNICEF representative in Paraguay, believes that it is one of the most important projects that UNICEF has had in recent times, since he considers that it is a tool that will allow all boys and girls to access quality education.
“The challenge that remains for us, and I think is the most important one, is to ensure that the Paraguayan State has the resources to finance these books and to reach the entire country,” reflects Obregón.
According to Karimi Yaluff, her son Thobías is a young man who has evolved in his personal development due to a a more inclusive environment, mainly because of school. Yaluff says that today's accessible digital books can become that first step, that little hope of achieving true inclusion in Paraguayan education.
"My dream is to see Thobías fully free to communicate," says Yaluff.