“For us deaf people, Indian Sign Language is the only resort, the only way we can communicate with people. If people don’t learn the Indian Sign Language, the communication between us and the world will not be possible. Why can’t we treat sign language like we treat every other language in India, it is the same like Tamil, Hindi, English, Gujarati etc. There is a dire need to normalize the ISL and the need is now.” A.S. Narayanan, President of the National Association of the Deaf.

Indian Sign Language (ISL) is used by the deaf and hearing-impaired people all over India. But ISL is not the language taught or used to teach deaf children. Teacher training programs all over India do not consist of the necessary education for teachers to learn the method of using ISL (to teach). ISL is not very common amongst people in general. This ignorance widens the gap between children and normalization. It also leads to a severe need for interpreters in educational institutions, to communicate between the deaf and the others. Currently, India only has around 300 interpreters and no separate college for deaf people.

According to a census in 2011, there are more than 50,71,007 deaf people and amongst them, 19,98,535 have speech disability too.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD)

NAD is an organisation that is working to empower Deaf and Hard of Hearing people across India; one that is of the deaf, by the deaf and for the deaf. NAD hopes to breathe new life into the deaf movement and empower deaf people across the country to stand up and claim the rights that they are entitled to.

With multiple awareness programs in place, the NDA aims to educate people on the importance of the Indian Sign Language. It has worked with multiple police stations, to educate the department about the language, helping them to deal with crimes against the deaf.

Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC)

The Planning Commission was set up in India in the 1950s, more than 50 years back. The Planning Commission had blind and orthopedically challenged people but no deaf person. The Disabled Rights Group, headed by Javad Abidi kept advocating with the Planning Commission, for the right of deaf people to also be included in the Commission, but the request was not accepted.

The NAD had five demands from the Planning Commission, which included: the ISLRTC, interpreters, subtitles, colleges for the deaf and schools up to 12th standard.

There was no progress for two years and then on December 3, 2009, the Disabled Rights Group and NDA held a protest outside the Planning Commission Office and it was conveyed to the Planning Commission that they have not been responding to their letters from past 2 years and presented the demands.

Mr. Narayanan stated that “More than 80% of the deaf people in the country are uneducated and unaware of their rights or language. People don’t know what to do with deaf people, so they leave it be. The topic is just not discussed enough.”

The Planning Commission said that it was very difficult to implement all five demands of the NAD, and they were asked to choose one from the five, which could be implemented. The NAD chose ISLRTC.

In 2010, the Finance Ministry approved of the demand and allocated a budget of Rs. 44 crores for the project. After some time, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment took a decision to include ISLRTC to Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). IGNOU was made the administering body of ISLRTC and the Vice-Chancellor was replaced with a new person.

According to the official website of NAD, the new Vice-Chancellor was not very considerate about ISLRTC and the responsibility of ISLRTC was given back to the Ministry for Social Justice & Empowerment. NAD demanded ISLRTC to be an independent body and they were promised that their demands would be met, but it was not granted.

“We organised a protest on May 5, 2015, outside Shastri Bhawan Gate, and more than 3,000 people came and protested with us. The people protested fro the autonomy of ISLRTC. This enabled us to get the required attention from the authorities and ministries. We were advised to meet the PMO” Mr. Narayanan said talking to The Wonk.

After two days of the protest, Sibaji Panda, Vice President from All India Federation of the Deaf, Uma Kapoor, General Secretary of All India Foundation of Deaf Women, Zorin Singha, President of National Association of the Deaf, A S Narayanan, Secretary of National Association of the Deaf and Surender Randhawa, PhD went to meet Shri Jitendra Singh in the Prime Minister’s Office(PMO). The demands were agreed upon and after two months, on September 22, 2015, the ISLRTC was made autonomous by the PMO.

Deaf Women and the problems faced by them

Searching crimes against deaf women can be a major pain. Many cases come up about minor and adult deaf and mute women been raped, abused and assaulted on a daily basis. So many articles on the crime and little to no justice. All this comes in when there is lack of awareness and education to communicate with the victims.

Organisations like Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS) work for the upliftment of these women all over the world. In India, there is no such specific organisation to help deaf women survivors. The National Commission of Women in the only established organisation, apart from various NGOs who go around the country to train, educate and make people understand the problems women face.

Geeta Sharma, Women Secretary at the National Association of the Deaf, explaining the rights of deaf women

While speaking about crimes against the deaf to The Wonk, Mr. Narayan stated, “There was a girl, aged 10, in the outskirts of Delhi, she lived with her family, in which, her mother and sister were also deaf. The father didn’t know the ISL language, thus not being able to communicate with the rest of his family. The girl was being gang-raped since a long time but wasn’t able to communicate. We went their to help the police and the family. The situation was a mess.”

Crimes against the disabled people have been increasing rapidly over the past years, which has increased the importance of learning the language of the disabled for the police officers more than ever.

Mr. Narayanan added, “The crime rate and no education is bad enough in the urban areas of the country, rural areas are even worse, and there is no determining how worse it actually is.”

There is not much data about the suffering of deaf women, which is another matter of concern as the area remains unexplored. Thus, thousands suffer.

Awareness comes from perspective. In the end, it all comes down to the lack of education regarding the language. As the gap between deaf and hearing people widens, the local public suffers.

NEP 2020 and the Indian Sign Language

With the New Education List in place, the education system will be changing for the better in the coming year. Apart from changing the education pattern to 5+3+3+4, the New Education Policy also mentions that the Indian Sign Language will be standardised across the country. Also, the National and State curriculum materials will be developed for use by students with hearing impairments.

The National Institute of Open Learning will develop high-quality modules to teach ISL and to teach other basic subjects using the Indian Sign Language.

The New Education Policy also mentions about making way for barrier free access for all children with disabilities. They will be fully enabled to participate and be included in the classrooms with access to assistive devices and appropriate technology-based tools and language-appropriate teaching-learning methods.

The NEP 2020 has a deep focus on the inclusion and promotion of languages overall, and ISL being one of them is a huge success for the deaf community.

Mr. Narayanan expressed the issue of lack of education regarding the ISL stating, “In the US, more than 200 deaf people have gone as far as doing PHDs, making a phenomenal career for themselves, if we look in India, not even a single deaf person has gone that far when it comes to education.”

He also expressed his gratitude and happiness for the inclusion of ISL in the NEP 2020 stating, ” The government recognized the issue and included ISL in the NEP 2020, it is a huge step for all of us and raises a ray of hope in our eyes that there is a better future for the deaf community.

Petition to include ISL in India’s Official Languages

The NAD put forward an official petition to the Home Ministry to include ISL in India’s official Languages list.

“India has 22 official languages, and we want that Indian Sign Language becomes the 23rd official language of the country. A large population is dependent on it, and its importance should be highlighted.” Mr. Narayanan said.

The NAD made a request in 2019 and got a reply from the Home Minister stating the procedure on how to proceed with the demand.

Mr. A.S. Narayanan explaining the demands of the petition

Mr. Narayanan stated that the NAD is in talks with the Home Minister to go forward with the demand and wishes to get the permission granted soon.

“I have two kids and me and my wife, taught both of them sign language as their first language, like their mother tongue. They are now fluent in sign language and understands the importance of it, they both can hear and speak, there is no problem with that. But the fact that they understand and advocate the importance of sign language is tremendous and makes me proud. Sooner the hearing people realize the importance of the language and stand up for it with us, the better world it would be for us. We just want to make people understand that sign language is not a foreign concept, it is needed and important just like the other languages because it is all we have.” Mr. Narayanan said while talking to The Wonk.