Although some people consider being deaf as a disability, others consider it as an inability or culture. To define deaf culture, first, we have to focus on the definition of ‘culture.’ The word ‘culture’ can be defined as “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.” Deaf Community being a ‘particular group,’ ‘believes’ that deafness is a ‘cultural identity’ and all deaf people of the world fall within this culture. However, a few deaf people do not associate themselves with such a culture and consider it a disability. Language is one of the primary organs of culture. The Deaf community considers the ‘Sign Language’ (i.e., Indian Sign Language (ISL) in India, American Sign Language (ASL) in America, and so on) an intrinsic part of their culture and appreciate its heritage, history, literature, and grammar.
The deaf community considers deafness an ‘inability’ rather than a ‘disability’ as they have their alternative language (ISL) to communicate with others within or outside their community. For instance, if one goes to Germany and they don’t know German, it would not be a disability. It would be an inability as they have an option to communicate in English. Similarly, the deaf community has the option to communicate in Sign Language instead of any traditional language.
The deaf culture was first to come into existence after the establishment of the first school for deaf children in 1814 in America to practice and learn American Sign Language (ASL). Further, awareness about the culture was made, which led to the official recognition of the history and heritage of Deaf culture in 2006 by American Library Association. The debate on the deaf culture was also spurred in India in recent times. Owing to this, a petition was filed in the Delhi High Court in 2018 by Nipun Malhotra, a disability rights activist in Delhi to make the Indian Sign Language (ISL) India’s 23rd official language so that it can be preserved and promoted by the government. Although the petition was rejected by the Hon’ble court stating that adequate legal protections for ISL already exist, it provided a boost to a much-needed debate on propagation, acceptance, and preservation in India through legal recognition of ‘deaf culture.’
NEED FOR LEGAL RECOGNITION OF SIGN LANGUAGE
The ‘official’ tag given to any language by the government not only provides legal backing to the language (like it would be the onus of government to preserve and propagate that language among the masses) but also makes it easier for the speakers of that language to use it freely without any shame and fear in front of state authorities as well as in public places. As per the estimates of India’s National Association of the Deaf, there is nearly 18 million population in India with ‘hearing impairment’ – hardly one percent of the total population, which makes them more vulnerable to fight for their recognition and rights.
Furthermore, the recent upsurge of the coronavirus pandemic also exacerbated the conditions of the hearing impaired and deaf persons, which would have been dealt with easily if ISL recognised an official language and adequate awareness have been made at the initial stages. Deaf people faced deprivation of accurate and reliable information due to the lack of information available in accessible formats. Moreover, due to the usage of masks, they became unable to comprehend through lip-reading and even there were instances where deaf people got beaten by police as they were not able to communicate their issues. Thus, it shows that the current scenario also unleashed havoc on hearing-impaired people in the true sense. As mentioned, one of the prominent reasons behind such challenges faced by deaf people was the lack of awareness about ISL among the masses, which can be achieved to a considerable extent by its legal recognition.
DISCRIMINATION FACED BY DEAF PEOPLE
As people with hearing impairment were not able to communicate in the manner prescribed by society, they face discrimination not only in public places but inside their homes as well. The children with hearing impairments are advised to learn to speak and comprehend by reading the lips of others rather than learning sign language as it would make them isolated from the hearing community. The parents, for the benefit of children, sometimes enrol them in a normal school so that they might learn languages and comprehend them from the beginning, which never helps.
A short-term solution until society becomes aware can be that the parents should make their deaf babies learn sign language at first so that they can at least communicate with the world as soon as possible. And then later, with the help of lip reading in the future might fit themselves within the majoritarian community. Alas, it was never given due consideration by them. Moreover, the state can be said a major facilitator in such forms of discrimination as it neither gives legal recognition to sign language nor make the masses aware of its use so that it might become normal in the society like any other language.
STEPS TAKEN BY THE GOVERNMENT
Although the government failed in performing the tasks as expected by the deaf persons, it has taken a few steps to make people aware of deaf culture and benefit deaf people. It was expected from the government that it might give legal recognition to ISL in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, but nothing like such happened even though two years later, the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment also urged for the social inclusion of deaf community by giving official recognition to ISL.
A few welcome steps by the Government of India that must be appreciated can be the establishment of the Indian Sign Language Research & Training Centre (ISLRTC) in 2015 in New Delhi. Further, in 2018, the first Indian Sign Language Dictionary was launched. The New Education Policy launched in 2020 also stated that the government would standardize ISL across the nation and develop state and the national curriculum for deaf students. However, there is more to be done in this area for the social inclusion of deaf people in mainstream society.
THE WAY FORWARD
For the promotion of Deaf Culture, the government should first and foremost focus on awareness campaigns, which can be easily conducted through the help of various Legal Services Authorities. The recognition of ISL as the 23rd official language would be a kernel for the facilitation of such awareness campaigns. Further, the National Organisations for Deaf are only limited to Delhi and Mumbai, which severely hinders the pace of the development of deaf persons. The government should at least establish one such organisation in each metropolitan city. It would help not only the hearing-impaired people but also in the employment generation as the people would like to prefer courses on Sign language to secure a job in such institutions.
Hearing-impaired persons also face problems in securing higher education as teachers and professors do not know how to interact with them in Sign Language. Thus, separate schools/colleges/universities should be established in each district with adequate facilities and teaching staff to alleviate this issue.
Further, Sign Language must not be restricted to only deaf persons as it would severely hinder the goal of social inclusion that we want to achieve. Hearing people must also learn Sign Language and teach it to others. Moreover, Sign Language shall be added to the course curriculum of students in schools and colleges not as an imposition but as an extra subject, which they might opt as per their discretion.
Society is ignorant of the hardships and issues faced by hearing-impaired persons, which is a primary reason for the underdevelopment in this area. The awareness campaigns would act as a linchpin, and for the benefit of deaf persons, the government must go for it. The deaf culture must be given due consideration along with the promotion of ISL by putting it under the list of ‘Scheduled Languages.’ As per the data of ISLRTC, there are hardly 325 ISL interpreters available in India, while the deaf community has a population greater than one Crore. It shows that it is need of the hour to work upon such unaddressed and neglected issues to meet the demands of ISL interpreters at schools, colleges, and different government offices. Thus, India being a ‘welfare state,’ strive to uproot the stigmas attached with deafness (an ‘inability’) by promoting ISL for the betterment of the deaf community.
This article has been authored by Kaustubh Kumar, a 2nd Semester student at the National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi. He thanks Dr. Arabinda Sahoo, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, NUSRL, for their guidance.