How do we speak with the 18 million Indians who are deaf?

Bridging the gap between the deaf and hearing community Photograph:( WION )

WION Delhi, India Aug 10, 2017, 11.30 AM (IST) Zeba Khan

India is home to the largest deaf community of the world. If data points by several welfare organisations working for the benefit of the deaf community are to be believed, there are an estimated 18 million deaf people in India (Lack of exact figures is because the Census of India documents an aggregate number of people with disabilities which includes all kinds of disabilities. The estimates also vary on how “deaf” is defined.)

Ayush was born deaf. He can pass off as a regular guy who works at a popular coffee chain, serving coffee and snacks to waiting for customers with a smile. He hides many stories behind that smile and wishes to tell it all, one day.

He ponders, “I don't regret being born a deaf, yes there are complexities and challenges I must face on a daily basis but what I actually regret, is not having the infrastructure to tell what I want to say or to prove myself. I just wish someone had the patience to sit with me and talk, instead of looking at me with pity.”

Need for a language

The biggest problem that the deaf community today faces is that of a common language. Who would know that only 0.25% deaf have access to bilingual education where knowledge of sign language is primary and that of a local language (to converse with the hearing community) is secondary or that for an 18 million deaf in India, there are only 250 registered interpreters? 

The Indian deaf is scattered and is not informed. Most of them either don't reach the classrooms owing to a close link between disability and poverty in India or don’t understand much because most schools use the oral approach to teaching. 

Those who can hear are always at an advantage. In terms of salary, career prospect; everything becomes stagnant after a while. Hearing and deaf community work separate. They don’t collaborate with us.
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Those few who are fortunate of receiving the best quality education claim that an absence of any link between the hearing and deaf community stalls their growth. Amit Vardhan is an artist who works with Atulyakala, India’s first lifestyle brand run by deaf artists and designers.

A Bachelor and Masters in Fine Arts from a top college in Delhi in India,  he says, “Those who can hear are always at an advantage. In terms of salary, career prospect; everything becomes stagnant after a while. Hearing and deaf community work separate. They don’t collaborate with us. There’s a major gap between deaf and hearing in terms of the money they earn too. We don't even get campus recruitments.”

Smriti Nagpal, the owner of Atulyakala, was brought up in a family where two of her elder siblings are deaf. While witnessing their world as someone who could hear, “sign language became an integral part” of her life “since childhood”. 

She founded Atulyakala, thus, to break stereotypes. She wanted to show that they could be as efficient as those from the hearing community. Hiring a mix of both from the hearing and the deaf community, she says, “It’s a very silent, happy atmosphere that we share. Only those who are passionate to learn the sign language and use it in their daily lives, come and work with us. We only use signs to communicate--be it to share a joke or to get the work done.”

Why making Indian Sign Language official important?

Till 2012, the deaf community in India used American Sign Language as it did not have its own. The American Sign Language is worldwide accepted as a universal sign language but the Indian community still felt something amiss. 

Almost every country has it own sign language and we realised that we didn’t have our own even though we have the highest deaf population of the world. We lacked a language that is culturally fitting in our environment, signs that we would be able to relate with.
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Smriti says, “Almost every country has it own sign language and we realised that we didn’t have our own even though we have the highest deaf population of the world. We lacked a language that is culturally fitting in our environment, signs that we would be able to relate with. Like how they would sign mother and father in American Sign Language makes no sense in the Indian context. We have a very different sign for mother and father in Indian Sign Language, something relatable for an Indian user. 

“I feel language also evolves, and then comes together in a standard form. Language has a lot to do with our culture, where we grow up, they are a reflection of our rituals. There is a huge cultural difference in how we use our hands, gestures in the South India or East India. But the Indian Sign Language thus formed is standard in India--just how we have different accents in every region--similarly there are tweaks in the signs according to regions.” 

The Indian Sign Language is today used by a large part of the deaf community due to several campaigns by activists and scholars, however, the language does not have an official status in the country. Smriti says, “We have been struggling to make it an official language. We are still waiting for the Indian government to recognise it and make it a part of the languages.”

Just like there are different dialects in oral language, sign language has a lot of variations. Unless the Indian Sign Language is made official, one form or structure cannot be mainstreamed. This impacts its further teachings. As a multilingual nation, the government needs to realise the need to officialise Indian Sign Language, for an inclusive growth of the community. 

Way forward

As some scholars and activists believe that deaf community must be considered as a linguistic community, the Indian Sign language has to come out of its monotonous shell. 

It is portrayed as a language for the deaf people, and not a language alone. As an entrepreneur, I realise it's all about pitching an idea--so portraying a language for all was the idea here. For example, focusing on the utility of the language rather than staying within the shackles of its limits.
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Smriti says, “It is portrayed as a language for the deaf people, and not a language alone. As an entrepreneur, I realise it's all about pitching an idea--so portraying a language for all was the idea here. For example, focusing on the utility of the language rather than staying within the shackles of its limits. Like when you are in a bar where very loud music is being played, and you can't communicate with words, you can use signs to ask the waiter for a drink or anything else. You don't have to shout on the top of your voice.”

Smriti, like a few others, is encouraging people to learn the Indian Sign Language as just another language. It will go a long way in making those who can't hear and talk converse at ease. 

Many feel that an official recognition of their language will go a long way in strengthening the deaf community and equip them to contribute to the society in a better fashion. 

(WION)