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Schools wake up to special child First word at 10, top of class now

Kaushali Datta learnt to say “Ma” when she was 10. She still struggles to make herself understood, except to her mother. Lip-reading helps her follow what others are saying, though she loses track if someone speaks fast.

None of these challenges could keep Kaushali, the only hearing and speech-impaired student in her Higher Secondary batch, from scoring 75.4 per cent in science to top a class of 98 other “normal” students.

“I have never thought about these things,” says the 21-year-old, set to study computer applications at Dinabandhu Andrews Institute of Technology and Management in Patuli. “I love to study, and that’s all I am bothered about.”

Kaushali’s anchor is her mother Mala, the one person she turns to for everything she needs. Seated in the headmistress’s room at her alma mater, Santoshpur Rishi Aurobindo Balika Vidyapith, the young woman looks at her mother and pauses after each sentence, allowing her to explain what someone not used to her speaking might fail to grasp.

“She is my best friend,” Kaushali says of her mother.

Before joining Rishi Aurobindo Balika Vidyapith, Kaushali had studied at Helen Keller Bodhir Vidyalaya in Mukundapur, from where she passed Madhyamik in 2012 with 80.57 per cent marks.

Like all children in schools for the hearing and speech impaired, Kaushali had to spend four years in preparatory classes before being promoted to Class I. She was 19 when she passed Madhyamik, though that meant little advantage over her peers who didn’t have to struggle to utter their first words.

Till 2003, the Datta family had been based in Balurghat, North 24-Parganas, where Kaushali’s doctor father was posted. “We shifted to the city because she was already 10 and hadn’t learnt to speak,” mother Mala recalled.

Apart from classes at Helen Keller Bodhir Vidyalaya, Kaushali was privately tutored at home by a speech therapist. She was able to address her delighted mother as “Ma” within three months of attending her first tuition class.

When Kaushali passed Madhyamik in 2012 with better marks than many so-called normal students, her parents were in a dilemma over which institution to send her to for her Higher Secondary studies. . “We had had a bad experience when we came to Calcutta in 2003. I had then approached a reputable south Calcutta school, which refused to take in our daughter,” Mala said.

Kaushali’s teachers at Helen Keller Vidyalaya advised her parents to try Rishi Aurobindo Balika Vidyapith.

“She had very good marks. I tested her in the laboratory and found that she was adept at handling laboratory equipment. I did not hesitate to admit her. It was a risk because our teachers weren’t trained to deal with students like her. But it was a risk worth taking,” recalled headmistress Sreemati Ghosh.

Even Kaushali’s parents were apprehensive. “So many weird things used to crop up in my mind, including whether she would suffer from inferiority complex,” Mala said.

In a few months, Kaushali proved herself better in studies than most. She would take notes by reading a teacher’s lips, gesture if she failed to understand and always come prepared to school by reading every chapter at home before it was taught in class. “If she missed anything, her friends would help her out. They have always been very caring about her,” headmistress Ghosh said.

Kaushali’s life outside school revolves around books and English movies. “Many English and foreign-language movies run subtitles. Since I cannot hear, I follow the subtitles. This has helped me learn the language,” she said.

Kaushali’s parents allow her to step out alone nowadays so that she becomes independent. “She is able to tell an auto driver where she wants to go,” mother Mala said with a smile.

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