23 September: International Day of Sign Languages
Greeting someone by joining our hands, or flashing the sign of victory with a “V”, or a smiling face – these are some of the gestures or signs we use in our everyday life. Sign language is used as an alternative for verbal communication. Without speaking a word, we can express feelings and emotions. We also have a few people in our surroundings who are unable to speak because they are deaf or hearing impaired. They communicate in a sign language which is specially devised for them.
Sign languages are separate from spoken languages as they are a system of communication that only uses visual gestures and signs. Sign languages are expressed through manual articulations in combination with non-manual elements. Sign languages are full-fledged languages with their own grammar and lexicon. Sign languages are not universal and they are different in each region and community. They are not a translation or conversion of any language. Sign languages do not have a traditional or formal written form. Many deaf people do not see the need to write their language. Children who are exposed to sign language from birth will acquire it, just as hearing children acquire their native spoken language.
The 2011 Indian census cites roughly 1.3 million people with “hearing impairment” in the country. Contrast that with numbers from India’s National Association of the Deaf, which estimates that 18 million people — roughly 1 percent of the Indian population — are deaf. This is a large number who needs to learn sign language to communicate effectively. According to The Rights of Persons With Disability Act, 2016, “deaf” means persons having 70 DB hearing loss in speech frequencies in both ears. Deaf people should obtain a disability certificate which is issued by the district medical board and avail facilities meant for them, though a barrier-free atmosphere is yet not available for them. Society in general does not understand the significance of sign language. It keeps creating barriers between itself and differently-abled persons.
A few deaf people use Indian Sign Language (ISL) but it is not popular in the whole country. Different communities and organisations have developed their sign languages and use them for teaching and communication. Our school education is purely based on verbal languages and it is a fundamental inconvenience for deaf children. The National Education Policy ensures education for all special-needs children and provides regulations for a barrier-free environment in schools. Some state governments are giving training in sign language to school teachers so that they can communicate with and teach deaf children in schools. However, ISL is still not used in schools and instructor training programmes do not orient educators towards teaching methods that use ISL. No teaching material incorporates sign language. Parents of deaf children are not aware of sign language and its ability to remove communication barriers.
In India, some government organisations work for development and research on Indian Sign Language (ISL) and have designed training programmes for deaf people, trainers, and parents. The Rehabilitation Council of India (New Delhi), Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of Speech and Hearing Disabilities (Mumbai), and Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) (New Delhi) organise training and awareness programmes on sign language to facilitate the deaf community in India. The ISLRTC has also launched the ISL dictionary for common people.
The accessibility of digital devices and internet connectivity can make life easier for the deaf. They can communicate with mobile phones through video calling and using sign languages. Mobile-based apps and YouTube tutorials are available for common people to learn sign language at home. The Indian mobile app “Sign Learn” provides an excellent way to learn sign language in a convenient manner.
In 2017, The Union Education Ministry launched an Indian National Anthem video in sign language, featuring disabled and partially disabled children. Directed by veteran filmmaker Govind Nihalani, the video features Amitabh Bachchan along with children who sing the National Anthem in sign language, against the backdrop of the Red Fort. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) has also provided sign language training to its employees to facilitate deaf passengers. Doordarshan telecasts a special news bulletin in sign language. To facilitate communication between deaf and hearing people, sign language interpreters are often used.
The Indian Sign Language (ISL) is not yet considered an official language in India. The International Day of Sign Languages (IDSL) is celebrated annually across the world on 23 September every year, along with the International Week of the Deaf. The day acknowledges that early access to sign language and services in sign language, including quality education in sign language, is vital to the growth and development of the deaf individual and critical to the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals. It recognises the importance of preserving sign languages as part of linguistic and cultural diversity. It also emphasises the principle of “nothing about us without us” in terms of working with deaf communities.
The deaf community is an integral section of our society and we should protect their rights and self-respect. They have the right to communicate with society and fully participate in every activity. This can be possible if the government and community accept sign language widely. A worthwhile effort needs to be initiated in this direction to encourage wider acceptance of sign language in India.
—The writer is a rehabilitation professional and a freelance writer based in Madhya Pradesh. [email protected]