Deaf and hearing impaired Indians push for official sign language recognition

Two girls engrossed in a sign language conversation at the Sheila Kothawala Institute For The Deaf. Photo by: Priti Salian

BANGALORE, India — For 18 years, Anuj Jain lived a lonely life. Born to hearing parents, he and his three deaf sisters were unable to communicate with them or their hearing sister.

“The only way we conversed at home was through basic gestures, which me and my three deaf sisters had devised,” said Jain, now 48. Their “home sign language” permitted only superficial communication, forcing him to bury his deepest thoughts and feelings.

“Once the language gets officially recognized, the government [will] be forced to work on creating an infrastructure for it, whatever the cost and effort.”

— Nipun Malhotra, disability rights activist

Like many others, Jain’s father was advised by doctors and his peers that sign language is a barrier in a deaf child’s speech progression. He discouraged his children from learning sign language, inadvertently depriving them of the most important tool a deaf person needs. “Papa always forced me to speak, but I couldn’t,” Jain told Devex through his daughter, Ananta, who interpreted for him.

When there were visitors, Jain and his three deaf siblings were asked to keep their mouths shut and just nod their heads. Deafness was kept hidden as a family secret.

With no deaf children in his class, meanwhile, Jain’s mainstream school failed to give him any much-needed friends. It was only after he graduated and joined a “Deaf club” — a place where people from the community meet and interact —  that his life changed. “I was really excited to meet so many deaf people and to see them communicate with each other,” he said. Jain learned Indian Sign Language from his new friends and felt “totally liberated for the first time.”

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“Thirty years ago, people mocked those who signed,” said Jain, who is now a joint secretary at the Indian National Association of the Deaf. And though the stigma has diminished to some extent, there remains a gap in awareness about sign language that has prevent ISL — and therefore individuals with impaired hearing — to progress.

For instance, there are just 386 government-run Deaf schools in the country as listed by the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre in New Delhi. And the number of certified interpreters is just 310, the organization reports. That’s certainly not enough to cater to the more than 5 million Deaf population, as stated by India’s 2011 census.

Pushing for more recognition and resources, disabilities advocates filed a public interest litigation to make ISL India’s 23rd official language. Their first hearing was held on Dec. 5, with the court ordering the government to respond within a month on whether it supports the measure. The litigation will be heard next March and is likely to be passed if the government doesn’t oppose it.

“Once the language gets officially recognized, the government [will] be forced to work on creating an infrastructure for it, whatever the cost and effort,” said Nipun Malhotra, a disability rights activist and co-founder of the Nipman Foundation, who filed the court petition. Schools and universities would need to conduct examinations in sign language and more jobs in public offices would become available as interpreters would become mandated.

Malhotra was born with underdeveloped limb muscles due to the disease arthrogryposis and uses a wheelchair. Through the Nipman Foundation, which has worked for the health, happiness, and dignity of people with disabilities for six years, his interaction with deaf people led him to understand the value of sign language in their lives. “Language is a basic human right, but I was surprised to find that, in our country, there are barriers to learning sign language,” he said.

The history of formal Deaf education in India dates back to 1884, when the first Deaf school was established in Bombay, now Mumbai. But “from then to now, oral education has been encouraged to develop speech and the use of sign language discouraged,” said Alim Chandani, another co-petitioner, and associate vice president of Centum-GRO.

That’s often true, even within government-run Deaf schools. Charu Narang, a deaf trainer who works with Chandani and coaches deaf youth on employability skills at Centum-GRO, called her education a “complete waste.” In Panipat, a city near New Delhi, where she attended a Deaf school, Narang’s teachers expected their students to copy notes from the blackboard and cram through rote memorization.

“They didn’t bother to explain lessons to us,” Narang told Devex through an interpreter. The teachers didn’t know sign language, and it wasn’t permitted in school. “Sometimes the teachers asked if we understood, but we just nodded as there was no way get an explanation from them,” she said.

“Weekends,” Narang said, “were a bright spot in my life.” She and a group of friends would meet up with deaf youth and adults from the community who taught them sign language. “We would burst out signing every time we met them because opportunities to converse with our families and teachers in sign language were rare,” she said. “We just chatted, and chatted, and chatted.”

“But in school, we had to sign secretly for fear of being discovered and punished for it,” she adds.

And though she received reasonable grades in school using rote learning and a little bit of “cheating,” there was very little that Narang actually learned.

Ruma Roka, the founder of Noida Deaf Society, an organization that runs an employability skills program for deaf youth and has enrolled over 8,000 individuals since 2006 — mostly from underprivileged backgrounds — agrees to the poor quality of learning in Deaf schools.

“When 17-18-year-old youngsters that have attended a Deaf school come to join us, I find that their minds haven’t opened up to the world.” The problem, she stressed, is due to the denial of sign language, which restricts their development.

At Sheila Kothawala Institute For The Deaf, or SKID, Bangalore’s oldest Deaf school, sign language wasn’t being used until the late ‘70s due to a century-old controversy over its advantage over speech. Experts at a multicountry conference in Milan in 1880 decided that the oral approach to education was better.

Soon after that, sign language was banned in Deaf schools worldwide. “In 2010, the ban was recognized as a violation of human and constitutional rights and revoked,” Chandani said, referring to a formal declaration passed at the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf, in Vancouver, Canada.

For the past several decades, teachers at SKID have used both speech and sign language for instruction. Hearing teachers speak as they sign to the students.

Children also get special speech practice time with experts. “We regularly have auditory training, speech and lip-reading classes for all students,” said Jessy Samuel, the school’s principal.

She admits that sign language helps her students “understand their teachers better, and communicate better.” She also maintains that a few children in her school have improved their speech over time and with practice to the extent that they have a small vocabulary.

But Pallavi Kulshrestha, a special educator at the Haryana Welfare Society For Persons With Speech And Hearing Impairment in Gurgaon, asked: “Does learning to speak a few words amount to language acquisition?”

“There is a lot of misconception about the superiority of spoken language over sign language,” Chandani said. “People are worried that the inability to speak means that deaf people would not be able to keep up with the non-Deaf and non-signing community in society.”

Numerous studies emphasize the importance of early language acquisition. Experts agree that to develop full language competence, every child should get regular exposure to an accessible language before 5 years of age. “When a child is denied language during this period, the damage is irreversible,” Kulshrestha said.

Instruction for deaf children needs to be bilingual. “Sign language being their primary and native language comes to them naturally and should be taught first,” said Chandani, who has a doctorate in administration and supervision in special education from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. “A strong foundation with one language would help students learn additional languages.”

India’s Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, which was promulgated in April 2017, mandates inclusive education in sign language, but its implementation is slow. “Currently more than 95 percent of the teachers do not use sign language as their primary language of instruction,” Chandani noted.

Were sign language to get official recognition, this would change, and all Deaf schools would have to adopt the language.

“Once deaf children pick up language, their reasoning, perception, and thinking will develop. Communicating more and more will improve their social and emotional skills too,” said Chandani.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act also prescribes accessibility and reasonable accommodation for government authorities by providing sign language interpreters at public facilities, services, schemes, and programs.

Yet there is a complete absence of sign language interpreters in public facilities in India. This means that every deaf person, or person with partial hearing loss, has to take along a family member who can translate, or hire an expensive interpreter — often difficult to even find.

Currently, there is no access for deaf people in hospitals, train stations, courts, nor airports. “How would a hearing doctor who cannot sign communicate with a deaf woman in labor?” Can a deaf person appear independently for a job interview?” Chandani asked.

Should the language become official, there will be a high demand for quality and ethical sign language interpreters, he said. Sign language would find a place in school and college curricula and many hearing people could opt to become interpreters, opening up job opportunities. “Awareness and inclusion would follow for the Deaf community that has always been excluded.”

Getting sign language interpreters on board would also help deaf people in getting justice,” said Dehadrai. A recent Human Rights Watch report underscored how women and girls with disabilities in India face a higher risk of sexual violence but are often unable to report crimes or get justice due to significant communication barriers at police stations and courts.

The government has already begun to take action since the petition was filed in September, and campaigners are hopeful about the litigation’s prospects in court. Recently, it was announced that there would soon be sign language interpreters assigned at all government meetings.

The Central Board of Secondary Education, a national education board for government-run and private schools is eager to introduce sign language in regular schools, though only for deaf children.

And earlier this year, ISLRTC launched the first Indian Sign Language dictionary in the form of six DVDs comprising 3,000 signs for English and Hindi terms. The dictionary helps deaf people find signed meanings for these terms, while it helps the hearing to learn signs for them.

Jain, who has been rooting for the recognition of sign language for years, is waiting for the most important consequence of the judgment.

“With national recognition, more hearing parents would know that there is a language for their deaf children. They wouldn’t deprive them of sign language,” he said. He dreams of a future in which every parent of a deaf child would learn to sign and be as involved in their education and progress as their hearing offspring.

“I’m waiting for the day when deaf children would feel equal to their hearing siblings,” he said.

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About the author

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    Priti Salian

    Priti Salian is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist covering culture, health care, development, human rights, and social justice. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, the BBC, National Geographic, NBC News, NPR, PRI, CityLab, and many other publications. Visit her website at www.pritisalian.com.