Yes, Sign language does save lives

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Jaydeep Khanduja

Jaideep Khanduja

How many of you like to fly? How many of us get lost at the airport? We often get lost at the airport trying to figure out the airline check-in to security to boarding gates circuit. This lost maze is what Dr Alim struggled for 20 years of his life trying to find his route, his path, his identity and where to fit in. This is the story of Dr Alim Chandani and millions of deaf Indians. Dr Chandani is deaf by birth and a social role-model for deaf youth in India.

It is estimated that there are around 10 million deaf people in India. Ninety percent of the deaf children are born to hearing parents. Birth of a deaf child is given as traumatizing news by the doctors to the parents. Medical practitioners do not inform the parents of deaf children about the amount of success that deaf individuals have had and that their child could have the same. Access to sign language isn’t given as an option to the parents at all. Lack of sign language access has led to immense language deprivation in deaf children.

To talk about the education for the deaf, with about 300 deaf schools in India, can you imagine that 95% of the schools don’t allow sign language as a primary language to teach? Can you imagine more than 2 million deaf children are lost without any guidance or role models. Why so? because, the teachers in deaf schools don’t use sign language to teach the students. The emphasis has been limited to oral methods, speech therapies, implants and aids. Amidst all this, the children face immense loss.

While the country has 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects, why can’t we consider making the Indian sign language the 23rd official language of the country? A PIL has also been filed not so long back by deaf and disability rights activists to make ISL the 23rd official language of the country. Dr Chandani is one of the petitioners. India will be celebrating 73 years of independence this year, and our deaf children are still demanding their freedom of language. Sign language is a fundamental human right of every deaf person.Dr Alim Chandani is the living proof of the same. Dr Chandani left the country when he was three, studied in different countries, struggled figuring out his true identity till the age of 21 when he was truly exposed to the world of sign language. Today he is one of the very few deaf Indians to have attained a PhD. He moved back to his country of birth in 2016 and started a deaf empowerment skill training center with a leading corporate company. Two years of experience in skilling with more than 525 deaf youth made him and his team of deaf experts understand that skilling alone can’t change the situation of the deaf in India. Domain skilling in hospitality, retail, data entry, etc. may get deaf adults blue collared jobs, but there have been significant reports that show us the high attrition rates and very low satisfaction rates. The causes of the fallout vary from discrimination by the dominant hearing community and lack of communication services. There needs to be a paradigm shift from charity to rights, and mere skilling to quality education.

One cannot build a house on a weak foundation. Similarly when it comes to the deaf community, the education system is so poor that one cannot expect that a deaf adult will have his/her dream job and a secured life. The schooling system in India leaves a lot to be desired and despite having a degree in hand, the deaf youth knows very little compared to the general public and the sole reason for the same is an alarming lack of access through sign language in
the education system. The deaf individuals miss out on the crucial formative years of education. Hence the academic foundation of such a child remains weak, leading to education without knowledge. Education and early intervention through sign language can play a major role in saving the next generations, so that they don’t face the same problems today that the deaf youth is facing and thus have a bright future.

Dr Chandani informs us that another major challenge for the community has been a lack of quality sign language interpreters. For a deaf population of 10 million, there are only 400 sign language interpreters in India. Out of these 400, maybe 40 can qualify to be skilled in receptive and expressive skills. This represents a huge community and demand for quality and ethical ISL Interpreters at schools, colleges, govt. offices, police stations, courts, and every other information traction, recreational and employment institutions. Nonetheless, the country is making considerable efforts and has also passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, which mandates accessible services for all persons with disabilities without any discrimination.

But the troubling question is why we in India at this point do not have a monitoring mechanism and ethical standards for interpreters? While the need for interpreters is endless, there is a lot that waits for attention in the field of Sign language interpretion. Areas needing immediate focus include those ranging from issues of confidentiality, unstructured payment norms, attitude problems, respecting deaf individuals, adapting to regional variations of sign language, conceptual understanding etc. Dr Alim with his insightful personal experience with sign language interpreters felt the urgency in developing a ethical practices and code of conduct document for Indian sign language interpreters.

Dr Alim, using his first hand experience being a deaf person, has examined and interpreted perceptually what communicating with the deaf community means. He believes that doing in-depth surveys and analysis of various barriers faced by deaf people look a leap of faith in Feb 2019 and started his own community based start-up called Access Mantra, AccioMango Pvt. Ltd. The main aim of Access Mantra is to find accessibility solutions. Many people in the country have asked Dr Chandani a lot of ‘where’ questions, like parents wanting to know where can they learn ISL to communicate with their children, where and how to find schools and colleges for their deaf children and a lot more.

Access Mantra has created a ‘Deaf Information Network’ where one can find a lot of pointed data related to deaf people. It’s a ‘One Stop’ website that shows a visual map of where various private & public organizations, educational institutions, ISL classes, legal/medical services, ISL interpreters, early intervention programs, job training centers & agencies that provide services for the deaf population are located in India. It also aims to provide communication support through an online video platform, providing ISL translation for deaf and Non deaf people to communicate with each other.

The website and services shall be breakthrough for many barriers the deaf and the Non-deaf community has been facing. The dream is big and so are the challenges. The biggest of all being the ‘attitude’ of the people in powerful positions.

How can we ensure that the new airplane can have a smooth take-off on the runway? What and where is that missing piece in the jigsaw?

Currently, different communities be it the hearing community, the deaf community, the general community or say PwD community are not aligned with each other by default. This could be due to a serious lack of awareness, ignorance or lack of acceptance. Hence, it is very important to involve a person who you are making decisions for.

Let the beauty of Indian sign language radiate and shine!

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