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Feature

Talking hands

The world of sign language is all about hands that talk and eyes that speak a fluid, graceful speech. Sadly, however, the absence of a standard language is often a barrier in communication between deaf/hearing impaired people and others, says D.S. Chauhan.

Picture of a lecture being translated into sign language

Signs and gestures are used and understood universally. However, for those who are born deaf, it is their mother tongue. In the absence of the faculty of hearing, a deaf child cannot learn a language the natural way, by the process of hearing and copying the sound of spoken words.

In such cases, a formal education is required to teach language. Sadly, existing educational institutions of deaf people in India do not cater to the needs of even 1 per cent of deaf children of school-going age. Therefore, the very vast majority of those born deaf remain without the knowledge of a language.

For them, signs and gestures are normal modes of self-expression and understanding others. However, these signs and gestures are self improvised and, therefore, only those who are exposed to them can use and understand them.

Essentially, these signs are pantomimes of the motions involved in a specific activity, such as eating, drinking, sleeping, and so on. The more innovative among deaf people devise signs for a wide range of signs, largely for meeting their personal needs. Sometimes hands and fingers are also formed in different shapes to denote an object, essentially of daily use, such as a cup, tumbler, plate, toothbrush, toothpaste and so on.

Being self-improvised, these differ from person to person and from place to place. If there are two or more deaf people present at a given place, they develop their own local sign language by communicating with each other. When these deaf people come into contact with deaf people of nearby areas, they are able to achieve a short of synthesis which is often taken as the regional language, which for the more learned among the sign language experts becomes a dialect.

The sign language used in India can be roughly divided in four zones or regions: East, West, North and South. The basic signs, which are based on any form of human activity, are basically the same, but variations do exist. For example, the sign for drinking water in the North is the cupping of the palm and touching it to the lips, a mode of drinking quite common in the region. In the South, water is poured directly in the mouth, with the head tilted backwards, from a vessel kept high over the head. So a sign denoting that, or a sign such that that used in the North, could both be used.

Then there are the signs which are based on customs prevalent in a particular area or religious ritual. For example, to signify a wife, in North India, the sign used is to place one palm over the other as is done during the marriage among the Hindus. In the South, the sign is motion of tying ‘Thali’ around the neck.

From the above examples, it will be noted that these signs, though good enough to convey some sense, have no academic value at all. In fact, these signs are few and far between. A deaf person, for example, cannot explain his illness or the symptoms of his disease. He cannot also interact with those who are not exposed to his particular usage of sign language. Though there is difficulty initially when deaf people from different regions meet and use their regional sign language, the use of supporting signs and understanding can be achieved after some give and take.

But with this limited sign language deaf people cannot lead satisfying lives. They may be able to learn some trade or vocation and earn just enough to meet the family’s needs but social, cultural, religious activities are not for them because of communication barriers. Many deaf people have established themselves on their own in their chosen field but when it comes to issues such as the education or marriage of their children, or the partition of the family’s assets, they find themselves quite at sea.

What is more, they cannot enlist the help of an average hearing person, who most likely will not be able to understand the deaf person. Only a person with knowledge of sign language can understand them. Sadly, such persons are not easily found. Therefore, it is not surprising that even for the drafting of a petition people come from relatively far-away places go to Delhi or go to State capitals, believing that there would certainly be qualified persons who would become their saviours.

Had there been a standard Indian sign language in place, deaf people would not suffered that much. This is because it would have been possible to familiarise the relevant people with a standard Indian sign language by conducting special orientation courses. Alas, even after 57 years, no sincere attempt has been made to develop a standard Indian sign language: easy to use, easy to understand by deaf/hearing impaired and non-hearing impaired alike, and which can meet the domestic, educational, training, economic, social, cultural and religious needs of deaf people.

Even though there is no Indian sign language as such, so-called experts on sign language, some of them imported, go about telling people that there is already an Indian sign language, complete with its grammar. If such be the case, one wonders as to why it cannot be used to explain lessons to deaf students in their special schools. Even though they may spend 10 years in their special school and possess Matriculation certificates, sadly they cannot write even a single sentence which is grammatically correct. Would this be so had there been a standard Indian sign language complete with its grammar in place?

No doubt some efforts have been made in this direction and more are being made. However, the basic approach is wrong. The collection and codification of existing signs used by adult deaf people is hardly development. What is needed is a sign language which can be used in the classrooms to explain lessons to deaf students. At present their teachers have no means to explain lessons. No wonder, when the average deaf student leaves school after completing his studies, his knowledge levels are the same as when he was admitted.

In the developed world, 39 countries have already accorded the status of a ‘national language’ to the country’s sign language, and these are used as the medium of instruction. And in India, we are yet to take even the first step in this direction -- development and standardisation of sign language.

The right course would be to broad-base sign language development work, currently confined to one or two agencies. Also, involvement of Institutes of Technology and universities is called for. An active involvement of organisations of adult deaf people, so far kept out, is essential if the sign language development efforts are to prove not only successful, but also acceptable.

In this context, mention can be made of the revolution that Braille has brought about in the education of visually persons. This is because it tapes the astonishing sense of touch and feel with which Nature has endowed visually impaired persons.

Deaf people, on the other hand, hear with their eyes and speak with their fingers. If this natural talent of theirs, symbolised by their sign language, is developed and used, they can benefit the most. It has already been established by the results obtained during the past 100 years and more that the present system of educating deaf people has not delivered the desired results. A sign language-based system, custom made for the needs of deaf people, can revolutionise their education. For this, however, we have to have a standard Indian sign language. This, if put into place, can open new vistas of progress for deaf people through proper formal education. Uneducated deaf people and normal hearing people will also benefit equally from such a step.

The question now is: Will the right sense prevail and requisite steps be taken to develop and standardise Indian sign language and make it a medium of instruction for deaf people?

We wait for an answer.