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In Memoriam: Saraswathi Narayanaswamy, founder of Balavidyalaya School for Deaf in Chennai, India

India has lost a pioneer and advocate for listening and spoken language. Saraswathi Narayanaswamy, 78, passed away recently after a brief illness.
Left to Right: Meera Suresh, Gayla Guignard, Saraswathi, Emilio Alonso-Mendoza, Srinivasan Narayanaswamy

Written By: Lisa A. Goldstein

India has lost a pioneer and advocate for listening and spoken language. Saraswathi Narayanaswamy, 78, passed away recently after a brief illness.

Her 50+ year career was borne from her experience being the mother of a child who is deaf or hard of hearing. As she told the Times of India, “I was left with no help in training my child. I formulated my own teaching method and worked along with him until he started speaking like any other child.”

Left to Right: Christine Yoshinaga-Itano, Emilio Alonso-Mendoza, Gayla Guignard

This led to her founding the Balavidyalaya School for Deaf in Chennai, India, which provides free education to children with hearing loss. The school has grown to over 7,000 square feet with 16 classrooms, 70 children, and 20 teachers.

“Since early intervention is key to developing speech, we admit children as young as three months and train them in speech language skills so they can join mainstream education,” Narayanaswamy once told The Times of India. Over the years, more than 500 children have benefited from the program.

“[She] inspired many organizations across India and Sri Lanka, which have based their models on her approach,” P Rajashekharan, co-founder of v-shesh, an enterprise that helps employ people with disabilities, told The Times of India.

The school held a golden jubilee celebration in December, which included an international conference. Leadership from AG Bell attended, presented, and were honored as dignitaries along with others at the conference.

AG Bell Chief Executive Officer Emilio Alonso-Mendoza recalls, “Saraswathi was so special to so many. We were so fortunate to be with her and everyone who participated in the 50th Jubilee celebration!”

“What a lovely, lovely person and professional for all of us to lose too soon,” says AG Bell Chief Strategy Officer Gayla Guignard. Guignard recalls how Narayanaswamy held her hand for a long time on the stage that last evening, which made her tear up. “A beautiful person and spirit,” she says.

In an email notifying friends about Narayanaswamy’s passing, Priya Dharan refers to her as “the doyen of deaf education of children in India.” Dharan grew up in Chennai; her sister was one of Narayanaswamy’s first students at the school. She also served on the board of the Jean Weingarten School for the Deaf in the San Francisco Bay Area for two decades. She describes Alonso-Mendoza and Guignard’s visit as a dream-come-true moment for Narayanaswamy.

Staff and Dignitaries at Balavidyala Jubilee Celebration

“Energized by your visit and the recognition she received, she and her trusted lieutenants had started marching ahead with an aggressive agenda for the next decade,” Dharan wrote. Her staff is “determined and committed to carry out [her] vision for the school and the teacher training program to expand the school’s reach and impact,” she added.

Narayanaswamy is survived by her son Srinivasan and daughter Meera Suresh, honorary principal of Balavidyala.

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