Volume 1 Issue 4 - October 15, 2003

Hardly heard

In India the deaf community is often denied access to basic language and education, Sudeshna Banerjee finds out

Picture of D.S. Chauhan speaking at a public rally

Hearing loss or even total deafness does not disqualify anyone, anywhere in the world, from earning a pilot's certificate. While there are as many as 120 deaf pilots and aircraft owners worldwide, in India the hearing impaired are often disqualified as disabled.

There are three million deaf children in India who are very often denied access to language and education, let alone any other facility. This has resulted in their total exclusion from civil society.

As D.S. Chauhan from Delhi Association of Deaf puts it, "There is no standard Indian sign language. The signs used by the deaf are a few self improvised ones and differ not only from place to place, but also from person to person. These signs lack the basic characteristics of language."

Sad but true. Sign language in India is still in its infancy and dictionaries are being developed. While National Education for Hearing Handicapped (NEHH) has already come out with a dictionary for deaf people, the language is yet to evolve.

The reason behind the slow progress lies in our poor education system. India does not have any formal sign language training in special schools either. Most teachers in these schools are themselves unable to sign properly. It is only now that NEHH has come out with a nine-month course module for would-be trainers in special education.

"They are planning to launch a course for parents as well," informed Arun Rao from Deaf Way. "There is a need for the free flow of information," he adds. "There should also be bridge courses for existing special teachers on sign languages."

According to Rao, if we include a formal sign language course in our schools by collecting the majority of common signs, half of the problems could be sorted out. "If not today, we can give them the backbone for basic communication in the future."

"If I can talk to a Japanese or a Russian through Indian sign language, then why can't we have a standard sign language in Indian schools?" he argues.

Education is an area where little is being done. As per data collected from Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of the Hearing Handicapped, India, four out every 1,000 children are born deaf, with about 25,000 deaf babies born every year. Only one in 100 are able to attend schools; 50 per cent of them drop out at the age of 13. Simply because they cannot memorise what is being taught and the education modules are dull enough to drive these children away.

According to Chauhan, there are hardly 500 schools for deaf children across the country - much less than the number of schools Delhi has for 'regular' children. "Most of these schools lack basic teaching infrastructure and are incapable of catering to even 1 per cent of the deaf population. Moreover, all these schools are situated only in urban areas. There is no basic educational provision for the rural population either."

Others like Onkar Sharma from All India Federation of Deaf shared similar sentiments. "Only after learning sign language does a student become capable of learning other languages like lip reading or oralism or body language, or even phonetics of other languages like English and Hindi," he says.

Picture of two people talking animatedly in sign language

There are various components in language for hearing impaired. In fact, most people feel that it should be a healthy mixture of mime, fingerspellings for describing proper nouns, sign language, body language, oralism or lip-reading and inflection of sign, wherein special expressions and modulations of the same speech is done in a casual way.

Most are unanimous the depending on merely one of them is not enough for effective communication.

Even the very best speech readers get only partial messages from reading lips. This is primarily because many sounds may not be clearly visible to a lip-reader. It is believed that only 30 per cent of sounds are visible.

"Lip-reading requires the proper conditions. Face-to- face interaction, proper light, distance between the speaker and the reader are some important prerequisites," adds Chauhan.

Others like Rao ridicule the concept of overdependence on speech reading. "It is only possible in a classroom, not on a railway platform. It hinders the student from learning through other sense organs. Imagine what education would be like if a student is made to concentrate on the teacher's speech for six hours!

"Had speech reading been so effective, then there wouldn't be any other language for the deaf. There has to be a balance of all other forms of languages if we really want to integrate deaf people into the society," he adds.

There are two aspects of integration: one where the deaf community has a standard language to interact among themselves; and another where society can understand what they want to convey. As far as the latter is concerned, interpreters play an important part in helping deaf people communicate with the rest of the world. However, in most cases, only the close kin of a deaf person understand sign language. There is more or less complete ignorance among society and sensitisation is far from reality.

Picture of Arun Rao of Deafway translating a speech into sign language

However, sensitisation is not a big issue or impossible to achieve. In the USA, for instance, sign language is like an optional subject or language, which anybody can learn in school itself. "We can also have sign language as an optional or maybe second language in secondary or senior schools. Thus we will create communication skills among regular students also. If not today, at least 10 years later we can have a society that can communicate with a deaf person without interpreters," Rao comments.

Similar changes could be incorporated in employment too, he explains. "If incentives are given to government officials involved in public dealings to learn sign language, things would be much easier for a deaf person."

Only if wishes were horses! As of date, few understand what a deaf person feels and wants to communicate. If there are announcements at any Indian railway station regarding sudden changes in train schedules or arrival platforms, a deaf commuter has to depend only on an interpreter. Accessibility is the main roadblock, and it will take some time before things look up. We may have a brighter tomorrow though.

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