A few months back I went to attend press conference for a company. When I stood at the entrance of the room where the conference was to be held, I saw people there communicating with each other consistently, there were smiles on perhaps a joke shared, instructions being delivered and received at ease, a lot of interactions taking place in every corner of the room. But regrettably I was unable to join in. Because a) I was an outsider and not a part of the team, so I didn’t know anyone there which is okay, and b) I, like most of us, have been conditioned to be an outsider and have chosen to remain so and this is NOT okay.
All the communication was taking place in the sign language, the conference was by the company about their vocational training programmes for the deaf who are graduates and because I didn’t know how to sign, I quietly found myself a chair and waited for the programme to commence – from hosting to presentations all of it were brilliantly put up by students and skillfully interpreted by a sign language interpreter. It was an absolute honour to listen to Dr. Alim Chandani, Dr. Madan Vashisht and see the presentations by the students there.
Like some of us who were there to cover the event, I instinctively raised my hands to clap as the chief guest cut-off the ribbon marking the launch of the institute and preceded to address us before the interpreter gently reminded us to raise our hands and “shake it” to show our cheers “because remember, we can’t hear, right?”
Right of course! The thing is, how could we remember this because like I mentioned before most of us have conveniently grown up in our own little cocoons and called it a world. All the while thinking anyone who is different in any way is the one who doesn’t belong to “our place” or “our world” – our schools, our colleges, our workplaces, our ways of entertainment (which movie hall can a deaf person go to?) and our public spaces as outsiders. I and in fact 99.9 percent people I know have actually absolutely no memory in the first place of interacting with the deaf in spite of all the talks about inclusion, forget acknowledging the need to know how to sign even a hello or appreciation.
I have been following the company’s Facebook page, their videos etc., they are going on with their work and are also holding cool events like a movie show with subtitles at PVR, Indian Sign Language Trivia quiz to raise awareness about ISL and similar very interesting stuff and are clearly making a progress rapidly! But high time we do so too. As a journalist, I have had a chance to write ‘news stories’ on special education but I have never attempted to speak to someone who is affected or rose above the lack of equal spaces and opportunities to do exceptionally well and instead have conveniently chosen to speak to people working with them, heads of special institutes, the experts so to say. Because I had never looked for, nor was I ever exposed to (in school or college) role models who actually experienced education as a differently-abled person. We tend to think that people with special needs, for instance those who are deaf, would always and always depend on others to say what they need to say. That’s only a minor form of ‘Audism‘ (not to be confused with autism) , by the way, a word I learnt at the event which means ‘discrimination or prejudice against individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing’.. A little google search told me we as a society suffer from audism.
An excerpt from a news story I came across… It’s old yet unfortunately, I think it’s still relevant.
On World Disability Day the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People and the National Association of the Deaf demanded official language status for sign language and training of people to become sign language interpreters at public places.
“…18 million are people with hearing impairment. Unfortunately, the concerns of the deaf people in India have not been addressed even 64 years after Independence…You cannot go to school or watch television. And God forbid if you have to go to the police station or hospital for an emergency. If you go to the railway station to catch a train and suddenly there is an announcement that your train has been postponed or the platform number has suddenly changed. But you cannot hear a word. It is a matter of concern that there are no visual announcements for hearing impaired people and no visual emergency alarms in case a fire breaks out in a building…” says NAD president Zorin Singha.
As a journalist I have had a chance to profile some schools, they have different and brilliant amenities and specialized counselors for children with special needs, and now we have these schools offering our children languages like German, French, Chinese, Japanese and there are specialized clubs for English too. That’s all very good. Really. But why aren’t there any courses on sign languages? Sign languages are taught in specialised schools but how will that be sufficient if mainstream schools do not have this option? From the start we are creating two separate worlds. Seriously, in India, how many people these kids can interact with in German or Spanish! On the other hand, learning of sign languages can actually help them grow out of the boxes we have been living in. Even if we are thinking career wise and want to focus only on what’s a lucrative option, India and I believe globally we need sign language interpreters. To start with, let’s acknowledge that there is a long way to inclusion and its really about finding our way into it and let’s explore how to go about diminishing audism from our lives.
Googling every now and then about this issue, attempting to get a figure about how many people in India are deaf/how many children are deaf etc. and how many sign language interpreters we need ( India apparently has only 250 certified sign language interpreters, translating for a deaf population of between 1.8 million and 7 million). i thought why not write a revolutionary article on the issue that could change the world and give myself a pat on the back for doing some great job — that’s not how it happens of course but I did become far more aware than I was. I learnt a lot about deaf culture – for instance sign language, like other languages vary from country to country, so there is an American Sign Language, British Sign Language, there is an Indian Sign Language and so on. I also found out the last week of September every year is designated as International Week of the Deaf by the World Federation of the Deaf, an international non-profit and non-governmental organisation of deaf associations from 133 countries. And I thought it would be good to share it here.
So here’s to the International Week of the Deaf… trying to explore my ways into inclusion and do away with audism.