Published on September 13th, 20180
My Experience as an S-LP in India: April 2 – 16, 2018
By Shari Linde, Director of Advantage Speech-Language Pathology
A version of this article appeared in the June 2018 edition of Speech and Hearing BC’s Vibrations newsletter.
For many years, I had been contemplating doing a work program abroad. I began to research options and came across a group founded by a young Vancouver man named Aaron Friedland. My adventure with The Walking School Bus was about to begin.
The Walking School Bus’ mandate is trifold: access, nutrition and curriculum. This approach helps the students get to school, ensures that they are well fed and improves their curriculum. The Walking School Bus had completed numerous successful trips to Uganda. The group’s upcoming first trip to India seemed like a good fit, where I could utilize my skills as an S-LP as well as contribute in many other ways. I was particularly interested in the research the group was conducting on how reading while listening would impact students’ literacy development. I also enjoyed the idea of being part of an international team, where our projects would have a short-term and a long-term impact on the Indian children, but could also have global implications when implemented in other areas.
On my expedition, there were a total of 20 in our group, from a wide variety of disciplines. The group ranged in age from 19 to 54 and traveled from Canada, Switzerland, Israel, Dubai and from across India. Everyone was warm and welcoming and eager to share their knowledge, culture and expertise.
We travelled six hours by early-morning train from Delhi to Uttarakhand, a region in the Himalayan hills. Watching the views of the settlements along the way, and the magnitude of homelessness and poverty was a real eye-opener. From the train station in Kathgodam, it was 3 hours by bus on winding narrow roads to our guesthouse. The school we were supporting, Himalayan Public Schools-Suyalgarh, was an additional 45 minutes away.
For seven days, we spent time on our various projects. We built a water catchment system, the researchers surveyed the kids regarding transportation needs, the children participated in art projects and we established a solar classroom with computers (a storage container converted to a classroom).
A primary focus of the expedition was the impact of “listening while reading” on reading fluency development. This project used the computer application, SiMBi, to give students access to books that have been pre-recorded by native English speakers. Using pre-selected, culturally-appropriate reading passages, we evaluated the correct words per minute for students from the first to seventh grades, keeping in mind students’ accents and appropriate sound substitution errors. Students randomly placed in control and treatment groups were re-evaluated after 30 days by one of the researchers in order to determine SiMBi’s impact.
As an S-LP, I was able to identify and assist children who had language or communication needs. In particular, I worked daily with a Hindi-speaking second grader who had a significant phonological disorder and had never received any services. He was so excited when he could say some of his sounds correctly. His classmates were interested in what he was doing and eager to help him.
Students were also brought in from a nearby school to meet with “the doctor” — that would be me, as that’s what they believed I was — in order to provide the parents with suggestions and recommendations for services or exercises to do at home. In addition to the language barrier — my work had to be done via an interpreter — there was an extra layer of challenges when parents did not read or write in any language and could not personally benefit from written instructions.
In many parts of India, there is a real paucity of available services for children with communication needs. Many teachers have limited educational training and no access to resources. They are working in classrooms lit only by the daylight that comes into the room through the doors or windows. Students are sitting in crowded rooms with broken desks or tables and a small blackboard at the front of the room. Many students walk up to 10 km to get to school, with poor footwear and limited food, and often in stormy conditions. Yet, despite these challenges, the students appear to be cheerful and very eager to learn. They enjoy laughing and playing: even kicking a plastic bottle around can be a lot of fun!
The children of HPS-Suyalgarh were very respectful and kind. They loved to have their photos taken and would regularly say “Namaste” to our team members, or touch our feet as a token of respect. They loved to talk and share about their families, their wishes and their aspirations. They jumped at any chance to help us, such as with completing our charts, or running up the steep hill to give something to a teacher in another classroom. These children were truly inspirational. Their appreciation for what they have was truly admirable.
Throughout the expedition, there was frequently heavy rain. We often went for long periods of time without power or internet. Even though I had set up an Indian phone number, there was regularly “no service.” The emails, Instagram, Whatsapp and Facebook checks had to wait. We got to know each other better as a team, sharing masala chais and stories by the fireplace.
As an S-LP, I have taken a lot from this experience that I will share with the clients and families I service. Some of the lessons I have learned include:
- Don’t sweat the small stuff.
- Keep striving for more, even when obstacles are placed in front of you that seem insurmountable.
- Kindness and respect go a long way.
- Surround yourself by positivity.
- Emphasize interpersonal communication instead of the “gadgets.”
- Laugh, smile, share and play!
My only regret is that it has taken me 24 years as an S-LP to do a trip such as this one. It will not be my last. If you are contemplating any type of volunteer trip abroad, do it! It is truly a life-changing experience. A part of my heart has remained with the people of India. I have a much better appreciation of how lucky I am in Canada, and a profound gratitude to the Indian people for what they have taught me.
Shari Linde, S-LP(C), has been working as a speech-language pathologist since 1994. She is also the founder and Director of Advantage Speech-Language Pathology Ltd.