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Meet an NGO: Escuela de Educación Especial de SMA

Taller de carpintería

Taller de costura

Alumnos dando las gracias en lengua de señas mexicana

Mesa directiva de EEESMA

Salón de primaria

By Karla Ortiz

The Escuela de Educación Especial de San Miguel de Allende (Special Education School of San Miguel de Allende), known as EEESMA, is the only educational institution in the city concerned with the future of hearing-impaired children, teenagers, and adults, a unique mission that comes with singular challenges but also impressive achievements.

Founded in 2011 by John Doherty in the wake of a dozen local parents who did not know how to help educate their children, the school’s objective is to provide students with basic education—following the nationwide education model of the Secretaria de Educación Pública (Department of Public Education), known as SEP. But it does more: it trains students in communicating in Mexican Sign Language and provides them with practical skills to help them function optimally in a world not built for the hearing-impaired.

Before the existence of EEESMA, parents of hearing-impaired children had no other option than to bring them to regular public schools, where teachers typically gave disabled children paper and pencils to draw on all day.

“The children passed through grades, and would even graduate, with no knowledge of reading or of Mexican Sign Language,” said Doherty. “So I saw the need, and the parents came along. We worked together bit by bit, and in 2012 we were able to open the school’s doors.”

An equal education, plus more

Aside from a SEP-based education and the training in Mexican Sign Language, students are also trained in a diverse set of skills for daily life, including how to earn a living. The current group of 23 students attends regular classes—from kindergarten through preparatoria—from 8am to 1pm. Then, after a lunch break with a meal provided on campus, students attend workshops in practical and trade-based skills such as sewing, carpentry, jewelry making, or cooking. The objective of these workshops is for the students to develop abilities that will help them function on their own and could help them earn money.

The school even has its own shop, where it sells high-quality furniture, jewelry, and clothing made by the students at low prices. EEESMA also works with other NGOs such as Casita Linda, which uses the student-created furniture in homes Casita Linda builds for needy families from the campo. The school uses some of the income from the sale of the furniture to continue buying material and equipment and gives the students a share so that they can see the results of their efforts.

Meeting a host of challenges

Throughout the development of the school, it has faced different challenges. Among the first was finding a way to transport students to school, since many of them come from rural communities outside of San Miguel’s urban area and had to take a very early bus to arrive on time. The school has often dealt with this challenge by taking charge of transportation. This has extended to transporting children who become ill to medical care and even covering the cost of said medical care and any medications prescribed. This all has been possible thanks to the financial support of various local organizations and donors.

Another major challenge has been finding an education team qualified to work with students’ special needs since not many educators in the country know Mexican Sign Language.

“Fortunately we have a good team, but definitely one of the greatest challenges has been to find the people who are working with us today. We cannot hire an educator who does not know sign language because that would be incongruous and it would be much more difficult for that person to teach,” says Sanjuana Salgado, the school’s director.

And, of course, one of the school’s unceasing challenges, one which all NGOs of the world must contend with, is continuously raising new funds to pay budget line items like salaries, school maintenance, classroom materials, and food. The school’s needs are many. And although it can count on sympathetic, committed, and enthusiastic volunteers, not many speak Spanish, and few know sign language at all, never mind Mexican Sign Language. This limits duties the school can give volunteers.

Great need met with great determination

In spite of the challenges EEESMA faces, the school is proud to mark an imminent milestone: in February, the school will likely graduate the city’s first hearing-impaired students at the preparatoria level—a level which qualifies students to go on to higher education or vocational training.

However, this achievement will be but a welcome grace note among a symphony of struggles. For the school to continue to grow at the rate that it has been while offering students and their families education and training for daily living, the faculty and staff are constantly on the lookout for ways to generate income and offer services to the community that ultimately help their students function better in the world. For example, the school offers public courses in Mexican Sign Language—a great help for society, for students’ families (who need to learn to communicate with their children), and for the students themselves, who face a communication barrier every day in the world of the non-hearing impaired who don’t know their language. This barrier has forced many students to learn how to verbalize speech (despite being unable to hear their own voices) or to carry a notebook at all times so they can communicate through writing.

How to help

Those wishing to contribute to EEESMA can do so through the school’s web page, through the San Miguel Community Foundation, or through Amistad Canada. Contributions are tax-deductible. Doherty also invites potential donors and volunteers to visit the school and witness their achievements.

“Once you see all the marvelous work of our students, you will realize that these children are brilliant and that the only thing they need in order to progress is an opportunity.”


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