23 September:  International Day of Sign Languages

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Unspoken language

By: Amit Singh Kushwaha

Greeting someone by joining our hands, cricketers showing the victory symbol “V” with their fingers after winning a match, a smiling face expressing a feeling of delight. There are several gestures or signs we are used to using in our everyday life. On some occasions, sign language is used as an alternative for verbal communication. Without speaking a word, we can express our feelings and emotions. We have also experienced a few people in our surroundings who are unable to speak because they are deaf or hearing impaired, communicate in sign language which is specially devised for them.

The sign language is a system of communication using visual gestures and signs, as used by deaf people worldwide. Sign languages are expressed through manual articulations in combination with non-manual elements. Sign languages are full-fledged natural languages with their grammar and lexicon. Sign languages are not universal but different in each region and community. These 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 normal children acquire their native spoken language.

The 2011 Indian census cites roughly 1.3 million people with “hearing impairment.” 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 deserve to communicate by sign language purely. According to The Rights of Persons With Disability Act, 2016 “deaf” means persons having 70 DB hearing loss in speech frequencies in both ears. The deaf people should obtain a disability certificate which is issued by the district medical board and get the facilities, but the barrier-free atmosphere is not accessible for them. Society is incapable of apprehending its significance in language. It is developing a big barrier between them.

A few deaf people use Indian Sign Language (ISL) nevertheless it is not popular in the whole country. Different communities and organizations developed their sign languages and used them for teaching and communications. Our school education is purely based on verbal languages and it is causing inconvenience for deaf children because they are incapable to speak and understand verbal languages.

The National Education Policy ensures education for all special needs children and provides regulations for the barrier-free environment in schools. Some state governments are giving training in sign languages to normal school teachers and after that, they can communicate and teach deaf children in schools. Hence, the ISL is not used in deaf schools to teach deaf kids. Instructor training programs 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 organizations work for development and research on Indian Sign Language (ISL) and designed training programs 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,  organize different training and awareness programs on sign language to facilitate the deaf community in India. The ISLRTC had launched the ISL dictionary for common people.

The accessibility of digital devices and internet connectivity makes life of deaf people smoother. They can communicate with mobile phones into video calling and upon sign languages. The mobile-based apps and YouTube tutorials are simply available for common people to learn sign language at home. The Indian mobile app “Sign Learn” provides a unique opportunity to know sign language in a convenient manner.

In 2017, The Union Education Ministry had launched an Indian National Anthem video in sign language, featuring disabled and partially disabled children. Directed by veteran filmmaker Govind Nihalani, the video features film star Amitabh Bachchan apart from the 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 normal people, sign language interpreters are often used.

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 available 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 recognizes the importance of preserving sign languages as part of linguistic and cultural diversity. It also emphasizes 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 author is a rehabilitation professional and a freelance writer based in Madhya Pradesh. He can be reached at [email protected]

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