“When they laugh and I’m unable to understand why, it feels like a punch in the gut, a giant inside joke I’m not part of.” David Peter, a tech start-up programmer, articulates a feeling we’ve all experienced and loathe – the feeling of being outside of a group, outside of an inside joke. The only difference is David Peter has felt that way for most of his life and for him, it often feels like there will never be a chance for him to be on the inside. David Peter is deaf.
For over a decade now, in efforts to mainstream the Indian deaf community, organisations have been asking for legal recognition of Indian Sign Language (ISL) to little avail. In fact, earlier this year Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy and Coca-Cola India president Venkatesh Kini recently signed a petition that urges the Indian government to recognise Indian Sign Language (ISL) as an official language. But so far this has not happened.
Sign language has been used across India for decades, perhaps centuries without any formalisation. Then in 2001, the Ramakrishna Mission in collaboration with CBM International, Germany, released the first Indian Sign Language Dictionary, which documented over 2,500 signs from 12 states to provide a common sign language code. While there are varying dialects, over 75 percent of signs used in ISL are common to all regions. The Ramakrishna Mission and other organisations involved with deaf communities have since systemised ISL teaching materials, degree programmes and training sessions to increase its usage across India.
Despite the efforts of various organisations, deaf people in India still face formidable obstacles within local communities and society. Television programming as well as cultural programmes that utilise music and plays to connect communities, remain inaccessible for those in the deaf community due to lack of funding, know-how and ISL interpreters.
In a positive move, the Indian government has recently committed to increasing access to the hearing disabled by mandating all television channels to run subtitles on their shows, ranging from flashy serials to fitness programmes and news channels. However, a date for compliance has yet to be set and the implementation of this mandate remains unclear.
Deaf communities in other countries have also struggled in getting their needs met, particularly in gaining legal recognition of their languages. In the United States, it wasn’t until the publication of William Stokoe’s dissertation, which proved American Sign Language (ASL) to be a distinct, genuine language, that ASL gained recognition as a national language in 1960.
Indian researchers at the Central Institute for Indian Languages (CIIL) and Ramakrishna University have begun work similar to Stokoe’s to strengthen the demands of the Indian deaf community. These researchers are currently collecting data on ISL signs, facial gestures, and other modes of visual communication from every state in order to document variations in signs across geographic regions.
By creating quality, annotated data of ISL, CIIL and the Ramakrishna Mission hope to create a common understanding of the language, determine its grammar and syntax, and promote ISL learning and teaching. Researchers have recently finished data collection from Mysore and hope to move out of the testing phase soon.
While work like the research conducted at CIIL and the Ramakrishna Mission, engenders greater mainstreaming of the deaf into society, the deaf community is pushing for the official recognition of ISL now. Community organisers are hoping to capitalise on the government’s recent priority to create an ‘Accessible India’, today. There are ways you, too, can get involved and help the movement.
If you know or love a deaf person and are looking for more information on deaf culture and the role of community, check out these articles. Consider getting an ISL Interpreter Diploma. There is significant need for ISL interpreters to help increase accessibility for the deaf community. Contact the Association of Sign Language Interpreters for more information. And make sure to follow the National Association of the Deaf, India and the Deaf Enabled Foundation on Facebook to stay up-to-date on future developments!
Our society conditions us to be uncomfortable around disabilities, anything that is beyond the pale of ‘normal’. I, myself, grapple with the prejudiced misconceptions I’ve picked up from others over the years. But here’s the thing: every single time I have taken the effort to overcome my distorted perceptions, I have found myself entirely in the wrong and incredibly humbled by the patience and forbearance of those I’ve slighted. It’s an exercise I engage in daily, an exercise that is more of a vertical climb up-hill than a breezy walk in the park. The truth is, it’s difficult to engage with ‘otherness’, whether that’s race, gender, sexuality, or able-ness – but that doesn’t excuse us from challenging the narratives of ‘normalcy’.
Image source: Elyse Patten/ Flickr