There are 25 million Pakistani children out of school, mostly as a result of poverty and issues of access and opportunity. But some young people are deprived of schooling not because their families are too poor or living in remote areas but simply because the support they require is not available.

“Deaf children are not unintelligent,” says Sarah Sheikh, Donor Engagement Director at the Family Educational Services Foundation (FESF). “They are not disabled. They just speak a different language.” Yet young people who are hearing-impaired face discrimination, not just within the education system but also later in life, when it comes to employment.

According to FESF, an estimated 9 million people in Pakistan suffer from some form of hearing loss. Of these, 1.5 million are profoundly deaf and less than 10,000 of them attend school. This is both alarming and embarrassing, Sheikh believes, because an exorbitant amount of money is not required to help them become integrated into the mainstream. Yet there is a little or no investment in developing educational resources for hearing-impaired children.

FESF is a non-profit organisation working to strengthen educational infrastructure with a focus on those who are disadvantaged. Its Deaf Reach programme aims to provide hearing-impaired children with education and training in marketable skills to help them become productive members of society. It designs holistic solutions, training teachers and sign language interpreters as well as parents and communities to communicate with deaf children.

“There is a huge gap between technology and the deaf community,” Sheikh explains. “Previously there were only 1,000-2,000 words available in sign language in the country. This is akin to teaching a deaf child to read and write but limiting their access to further education.” As a result, young people with hearing difficulties are denied the opportunity to pursue higher education and are also unable to complete for jobs.

Deaf Reach develops educational resources that allow students to access learning materials that were previously out of their reach. It is creating a Pakistani Sign Language Visual Dictionary of 5,000 words, covering a range of topics including education, health and social issues, to help children communicate more effectively. These learning resources are published on DVD with an accompanying book and web portal. A phone app is also in development, to be made available free of cost.

“It’s not easy to undertake projects like this,” says Sheikh. “Funding is difficult. There is such a pressing demand in Pakistan for conventional education, healthcare and other basic services that it is hard to attract attention to the needs of deaf children. We have to work at finding funding at the same time as executing projects and try and make up the gap in some way.”

FESF was fortunate to secure funding from Ilm Ideas, a grant-giving programme that supports innovation in education. Theirs was one of 40 projects selected out of nearly 700 applications. Ilm Ideas provides funding and support in three phases: testing the concept, proving the concept and scaling up. Sheikh is confident that the Deaf Reach project has much more to offer. “It can help a lot of deaf people even if they aren’t formally enrolled in school, and scaling up is comparatively simple since the materials have already been developed,” she says. “It is simply a matter of getting the materials into the hands of those in need.”

“The deaf are a minority group, basically,” says Sheikh. “Being deaf is like speaking German or Chinese, it is just a different language. Deaf people are not disabled.” Sheikh wants people to understand this difference and believes advocacy is necessary. “It is a matter of engaging communities and giving them the tools to integrate deaf people into the mainstream. We plan to take our project around the country.”

Many innovative ideas in education fail to make it to the marketplace because of a lack of funding. But innovation is essential if Pakistan is to find a way to end the education emergency. The work FESF is doing through Deaf Reach is just one example of the good that can be achieved if donors and funding organisations look beyond time-tested solutions to support new and creative ways to address old problems.