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The Anglo-Russian School for the Deaf: ten years on
Arranging for a group of deaf children to travel from Moscow to Gelendzhik on Russia’s Black Sea coast for a holiday, at discounted prices, was never going to be easy. The travel agency seemed to exist largely to prevent travel. It was not understaffed, but the numerous staff we met all wanted different bits of paper we had not got. A familiar scene to anyone who has tangled with the neo-Gogolian world of Russian bureaucracy, but it had a surprising outcome. Someone was found who could actually take our booking, and our money, or at least, knew a man who could. This palochka-vyruchalochka seized the phone, then, covering the receiver, asked us: “What do you do in your deaf school?” Dutifully replying in the instrumental after zanimat’sia, we said ‘Zhestovym iazykom’ (Sign Language’). ‘I understand’, said the lady, and barked down the phone: ‘Oni zanimaiutsia zhestkim iazykom’. (They study tough language).
Tough certainly describes Russian Sign Language (RSL) if, like me, you are learning it from scratch. It is not, as many hearing Russians, and not a few deaf Russians, think, a primitive means of conveying basic information. It is a fully-fledged language, with its own grammar, which, incidentally owes nothing to Russian, and the capacity to express anything that a written/spoken language can express. RSL, the native language of many profoundly deaf people in both Russia and Russian-speaking parts of the former Soviet Union, as well as among émigré Russian deaf people in USA, Israel and UK, is at the core of a unique venture with which I have been closely associated since 1992.
In that year I published an article in Britain-Russia (92, September 1992) entitled 'The Anglo-Russian School for the Deaf' to coincide with the opening of that School. The response to the article was very encouraging and a number of readers kindly sent donations. This led directly to the establishment of a support group for the School, the Moscow Bilingual Deaf School Association (MBDSA), which, since 1994 has raised over ten thousand pounds for the School. In today's Russia, that buys a great deal. In the ten years that have passed since then, notwithstanding an attempted coup d'état in 1993 and a major economic crisis in 1998, the School has been teaching profoundly deaf children using a method that had not been used in Russia before - the 'bilingual' method. Indeed the school is now officially registered as the 'Moscow Bilingual School for the Deaf'. This means that in the school RSL is on equal terms with spoken and written Russian. Many of the teachers are themselves profoundly deaf, and act as role models for the children. The children follow a conventional school curriculum, which includes Russian. For them, this is a second language, and it is fascinating to see the mistakes they make in it and to compare their mistakes with those made by hearing English students. Alongside the conventional curriculum the children have lessons in RSL as well as deaf history, and also learn both British Sign Language and written English.
The School lies at the heart of the activities of what is now the Centre for Bilingual Education and Sign Language. We now have a pre-school programme, which has its own UK-based support group 'Signs of Russia', and deaf groups in a College of Further Education. The Centre itself runs RSL classes for parents and for future teachers of the Deaf and produces teaching materials relating to RSL. These were practically non-existent when the School started, but there is now a CD-Rom RSL dictionary, an RSL video of six well-known children's stories an RSL video course for beginners, besides much else.
There have, needless to say, been many problems. Finance is chief among these. The School is independent of the State system and, although some money has been forthcoming from the local authority, both the Centre and the School rely on help from sponsors both in Russia and the West. Among our Russian sponsors mention must be made of the Russian branch of Chevron Oil, and the organisation run by expatriates in Moscow 'Action for Russian Children'. Lack of finance has meant that although, as reported in 1992, we selected 30 students for the School when it opened, we were only able to take 12, split into two classes. We have not yet been able to expand beyond two classes, and there is thus a gap between the Kindergarten and the youngest class of the School (currently we have a Year 3 and a Year 4). Premises have also been a problem. The Centre and Kindergarten does have its own accommodation, on Parfenov Street, next to Moscow City University (MGPU), but the School is still based in School 65, a state deaf school in the Tekstil'shchiki region of Moscow.
We are very conscious that 'Moscow is not Russia' and have forged links with other parts of the Russian Federation, with schools in Lithuania and Belorussia. We work closely, not with national VOG (The All-Russian Federation of the Deaf), which has tended to look askance at the bilingual approach to Deaf education, but with its Moscow Branch (MOSGORVOG). MOSGORVOG has often been add odds with national VOG and, on at least one occasion, been within a hair's breadth of breaking away from it. MOSGORVOG is generally encouraging towards the Centre and the School and organises a Deaf Week every September in which the School enthusiastically participates.
The School has close links with the Royal Schools for the Deaf in Exeter and Derby and over the years has had many visitors from the West. Last year a student from Bath University spent his 'year abroad' as a teaching assistant at the School. Supporters of MBDSA come from UK, USA, Holland, Finland, Germany and Israel and are kept in touch with each other through a thrice-yearly Newsletter.
In 2002 we held our tenth birthday party on 19 October, the day on which Pushkin (who has his own 'sign name', indicating sideburns) and his schoolfriends always celebrated the opening of the lycée at Tsarskoe Selo. In our own way we hope to produce graduates as distinguished as the graduates of that august institution. In Russia Deaf people are only just beginning to view themselves with pride rather than as second-class citizens or 'poor man's hearing people'. Officially they are 'hearing impaired' (invalidy po slukhu), and content to be that, not least because the concessions which come from being classified as disabled (invalid) are very useful in today's straitened financial situation in Russia. They are, however, increasingly taking control of their lives and the institutions which represent them, and are forming close links with deaf people and deaf organisations in other countries, something which was virtually impossible before 1989.
We got the school party to Gelendzhik. This year our task is to get them to Vologda but, more importantly, it is to get the school and the Centre safely through the next ten years. For all the problems Russia faces, the signs are good.