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BHU’s Online Classes Without Sign Language Have Left Deaf Students In A Lurch

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Rahul Tiwari, a 19-year old deaf student, currently pursuing B.Sc (Hons) Mathematics in Banaras Hindu University, has been unable to access any of his classes in the entirety of his first year.

It is nearly impossible for me to follow my university classes. There are no Indian Sign Language Interpreters available, and the teachers use traditional oral and auditory methods to deliver their lectures“, said Rahul. His father, Mr Nagendra Tiwari, seeking the help of National Association of the Deaf (NAD), made multiple attempts in the past, to reach the authority and make his son, Rahul’s education accessible for him.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act received the President’s assent back in the year 2016. However, since then the implementation of the same seems to have bitten the dust, in many spheres. Time and again, the numerous institutions of our country have unfortunately managed to leave behind the disability community, be it educational, political, or social.

Rahul, his father Nagendra along with NAD sent multiple letters to state clearly that under section 16 of the RPwD Act 2016, it is the “Duty of educational institutions-(iii) provide reasonable accommodation according to the individual’s requirements; (iv) provide necessary support individualised or otherwise in environments that maximise academic and social development consistent with the goal of full inclusion; (v) ensure that the education to persons who are blind or deaf or both is imparted in the most appropriate languages and modes and means of communication”.

However, the letters have not received any positive response. NAD had also made attempts to reach the administration by constantly cold calling them; this, again, was neglected by the latter.

No society can positively develop until or unless it decides to include all of its people on a journey which works on providing all its people with equal opportunity. Education is one of the most important spheres of the same. When accessibility and inclusion become merely an afterthought of this domain, then it allows for institutions to dwell into their own privilege and very easily remove people from the narrative.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities took the decision to shift to the digital platform to carry on with the classes. The same was the case with Rahul’s college lectures. These lessons continued to be inaccessible for him due to the absence of an interpreter during the lecture.

The Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF), in its recent findings, had pointed out that 85,877 students with disabilities enrolled in universities across the country have not been able to attend these classes due to the lack of guidelines and absence of tools to facilitate students with visual, hearing or specific learning disabilities.

With the help of experts and consulting academicians and students, JAF then released a 20-point Disability Inclusive Response for Educational Institutions which laid out recommendations on how remote learning could be carried out in an inclusive manner.

One of the many recommendations that were put forward suggests the following: “4. c) A sign language interpreter should be provided if there is a deaf student who is a sign language user. It should be ensured that the window for the interpreter is not small and that there is enough light on the interpreter to ensure good visibility. Check with the deaf person if the signs are visible before starting the session. The Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) had made a Directory of ISL interpreters.”

For representation only.

Taking the advocacy initiative forward JAF has filed a complaint about the violation of Sections 3(1), 3(3), 3(5), 13(2), 16, 18, 42, of the RPwD Act with the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD). The larger issue is that the lockdown has pushed the various Universities to shift their work to a digital platform, making it their responsibility to cater to and accommodate the needs of all of its students. By not doing so, spaces such as schools and colleges, instead of becoming a stepping stone in the lives of individuals, have become a place that acts as an obstacle in their personal growth and learning.

In Rahul’s case, he has not only been continuously discriminated against in his college, but he has also found it difficult to gel with his peers. Feelings of anger, worry, and anxiety have often left him with high concerns for his future and rightfully so. Why shouldn’t he be worried? He expressed how he has felt extremely clueless and lonely when his class follows the traditional auditory methods which he doesn’t comprehend and which further marginalize him.

Education is meant to be engaging, non-discriminatory, and accessible for all. Anything other than that is a mockery of the same. It is time to change the way society looks at “normal.” Inaccessibility is unacceptable and must be rejected at all costs.

This article was written by JAF volunteer Ananta Jain, who is an Indian Sign Language (ISL) interpreter with NAD and student of Delhi University (DU). You can reach the Convenor of JAF Shameer Rishad on Twitter.

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