Volume 4 Issue 15 - August 01, 2006

Sign Language - the Life Line for Deaf People

D.S. Chauhan, General Secretary, Delhi Association of the Deaf, tracks the origin and progress of sign language, shares his views on its status in India, and puts forth ways to develop a rich and versatile sign language for use across the country.

About the origin of sign language, nothing much is known. But as there must have been deaf people even in by gone ages, some mode of communicating with them, must have existed. The earliest references are about a Christian sect whose members took vow of silence and communicated with each other through signs and gestures.

Over the ages, sign language has progressed and now in certain countries, it has developed so much as to acquire status equal to the spoken and written language. It is freely used as a mode of education to the highest degree in education that is Ph.D. and even beyond. There is also the world’s first sign language based University, Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C. in the United States of America.

Because of the fact that some sort of silent mode of communication has been there all along and the fact that a child born deaf, learns to express him/her self through signs, sign language came to be regarded as the mother tongue of the deaf people. This has now been proved to be true. Extensive, scientific research has established that a child born deaf begins to learn and use signs at the same age at which a hearing child begins to learn his/her mother tongue. Hence sign language is the natural mother tongue of the deaf people.

Lingua Franca of the Deaf People

Over the ages, sign language has been the lingua-franca of the deaf people. With its enrichment and development, it became medium of instruction as well. Now whether educated or uneducated, (barring those who have learnt lip-reading and not been exposed to sign language) deaf people use it day in day out.

Sign language is the visible mode of communication. Though a language, it has no script. It is also non-verbal in that it can not be spoken. In this system ‘the fingers speak and eyes hear’. In sign language, a sign performs the same role as a word performs in the written sentence. As words in a sentence, signs too have to be used in proper sequences to convey a meaning. Also signs used must be same for the same word and must have won universal acceptance within the country concerned.

To be recognised as a language, sign language too has to meet some standard requirements. It must be rich, versatile and vibrant. Signs should be standard and uniform, used and understood by a vast majority of the deaf people. There should also be rigid grammatical rules to maintain its purity and uniform standards. It also has to have its own literature and above all must enjoy acceptance of the vast majority of its users. It should be capable of meeting all the linguistic needs of the deaf people.

At places, especially in large countries where more than one language is used, there are bound to be regional sign languages. In these, while the basic structure may be same, the signs, especially those based on customs and practices are bound to differ. These signs are used locally and such sign language is treated as a dialect which can and does co-exist with the country’s standard sign language.

International Scenario

As the languages differ from country to country, so does their sign language. But the basics are the same. In all cases, sign language remains the visual mode of communication. Here too the hands/fingers speak and eyes hear. The level of development of sign language differs from country to country. Some like the U.S.A. seem to have reached the ultimate heights while in others it may even be non-existent, with deaf people still using self devised signs and gestures as means of self-expression.

In more than thirty countries, sign language has been recognized as official language because these fulfill all the pre-requisites for such recognition. In such countries, while the dialects co-exist with the officially recognized sign language, it is the later that is used as the medium of instruction and is uniformly understood across the country. Official recognition of sign language and its uniform usage across the country have benefited the deaf people the most – raised their standards of education, opened new fields for training and increased their employment opportunities. State recognition has also ensured popularization and propagation of sign language across the country, with more and more hearing persons learning sign language. This in turn has broken the deafness induced communication barrier between deaf and hearing people.

This sea-change has been possible due to the efforts of vigilant deaf people who exercised their rights. The society at large also responded positively to the needs of the deaf people because of awareness about their cause. However, the real credit should go to their Institutes of Technology, Universities and Colleges which helped in putting in place a rich and vibrant sign language and now continue to ensure that sign languages continue to develop and grow.

Indian Status

India on the other hand has miles to go before it can attain such international standards. Inertia of the deaf community leaders – (barring Delhi Association of the Deaf which has been striving to put in place a standard Indian Sign Language for nearly two decades, with some results now visible) and a near total indifference on the part of society and the Government, have left the Indian deaf way behind their international peers. A very vast majority, as much as 90 per cent, continues to depend on self improvised signs and gestures, lives in the family without being a part of it and leads a life without any charm or attraction.

Here it is pertinent to mention that a child born deaf can not learn any language – not even his/her mother tongue through the natural process of hearing. He/she has to be taught language through formal education. The tragedy is that in India, the existing educational facilities for the deaf can not cater to the demand of even ten percent of the deaf children of school going age. The over-whelming majority thus is left to their own devises. Since deaf people are thinly spread over vast areas, they use their own dialects, also self improvised. Often, they do not come across a fellow sufferer and remain the only practitioner of their own devised sign language throughout their life.

Therefore, rightly speaking there is nothing like Indian Sign Language in existence at present. Just two attempts have been made so far to collect, classify/codify Indian Signs by Ali Yavar Jung National Institute for the Hearing Handicapped (1987-90), Sri Rama Krishna Mission Ashram, Coimbatore (1998-2001) which resulted in production of two sign language dictionaries with a combined total number of 2444 words/signs with many being common in both. Hardly a rich harvest, and strange as it may appear, on the strength of these words/signs, AYJNIHH has launched a nine months long training course for Interpreters of the Deaf! From where the requisite signs have come remain a mystery. This is more so as all along, the stand of this National Institute has been that deaf will themselves develop their own signs – a tall order considering the fact that those deaf who know language, do not know or use signs and those deaf who know and use signs have no idea of any language. Nay, most of them just do not know even their name or its meaning.

The Way Out

From the foregoing, it will be evident that the Indian deaf people are placed in a difficult situation and only wide ranging, strenuous, broad based efforts with liberal funds allocation can help improve matters but even then, it will be a long haul.

The first and foremost is that an access to a language, sign language in this context, has to be treated as a matter of human right and not as a matter of favour or concession. Since it is impossible to create adequate infrastructures – schools, trained teachers etc. for formal education of all the deaf, at one go, provision of an access to a uniform or common Indian Sign Language to the deaf people across the country has to be ensured, being most cost effective, also of use ad-infinitum.

This will involve development of a rich and versatile sign language for use across the country. It is a stupendous task and requires Herculean efforts and investment of large funds. The right course will be to set up immediately an Indian Sign Language Academy, put at its disposal sufficient funds, man it with persons having high academic attainments and commitment to sign language, involve, nay win whole hearted cooperation of the deaf community and make all out efforts to put in place at least 20,000 words/signs within the shortest possible period so that these could form the base for further growth.

Thanks to the intervention of National Human Rights Commission on a petition by Delhi Association of the Deaf, a beginning has been made to develop a sign language for pre and primary school level deaf children. Much will depend upon successful completion of this project. For the first time in India, a University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is involved in sign language development work. Hopefully, this will be a prelude for involvement of more and more Universities, Colleges and Institutes of Technology in the field of development of sign language.

India has to learn from the experience of foreign countries where sign languages have received recognition as official languages and with this objective, a two way exchange of experts in sign language – deaf people, academicians, etc., has to be encouraged.

Awareness about sign language too needs to be created and the full potential of mass media – both print and visual has to be tapped. Popularisation and propagation of sign language has to keep pace with its development. Official use, particularly in telecast of news and serials in the sign language so developed will earn it ready acceptance.

A word of caution at the end. However fine a sign language may be, if it does not win acceptance of the stake-holders – the deaf, it will be of little use. Therefore, in a democratic way, giving a larger say to the deaf and giving due consideration to their views has to be ensured. The deaf community should be given the final say in all sign language related matters.

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