Signing up for empowerment with the Indian Sign Language

sign language for the deaf
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The medium of communication that is meant to bridge the barrier of understanding that often is an issue in a world whose residents are not all well versed in telepathy yet, language is one of the most vital tools of existence. And while this is considered most true for humans who since ancient times have been communicating with each other by developing a number of different languages and dialects that may be regionally confined or globally flourishing, every single living being communicates with the other members of their clan through the use of language in some form, not necessarily written or verbal. Birds and animals do so in very obvious verbal mannerisms, and in bodily manifestations as well much like us humans, while even plants are supposed to indeed interact with one another or perhaps with many a other elements of nature through a language that is native to them. This latter case and also many an ordinary recurrences of animal behavior, including those of humans, that dwell on gestures and body languages to adequately and effectively convey what they intend to, suggest therefore that communication need not always take recourse to the nuances of speech in its deliverance for it to strike a common chord of reasonable conveyance and subsequent comprehension of thoughts and ideas and the like.

The fact that communication through languages is indeed possible without taking recourse to the complexities of the many shapes in writing and the many utterances of speaking is however not something that had to be established by humans. Because as far as human civilization goes, there have existed people who have been impaired of the ability sometimes to talk and at other times to hear or even see but who still have managed to connect with the world much like any other individual with all these faculties of essence at their disposal. It is through means of a natural endowing innate to every one of us to instinctively put across our emotions and thoughts to others through such gestures and signs that do not even need a verbal or written medium for interpretation that these people born without some natural abilities of life or otherwise losing these inborn capacities for whatever reasons have managed to sustain their effort at communication with the world. But even in the prevailing face of this already existing vista of communication in the form of an acquired language based on signs, the folks deprived of their ability to talk and hear lose out on equal access to the privileges of the world largely due to social misconstrusion of sorts. And while inter personal communication is well taken care of within the realms of a sign language that is picked up purely on the survival instinct so innate to living beings, the lack of a systematic, formally established language based on the interpretation of signs hampers in many ways the right to life and dignity of that proportion of the population who do not possess the auditory and oral abilities of communication.

It is due to biases like these that exist still in society making ‘normal’ existence an unattainable dream for the people with special needs that makes it all the more necessary to devise special means to their advantage. But despite the liberties we take in addressing these basic issues of life as doing something ‘special’ for those who are unlike us, what this charting of the specific course turns out to be is in fact part of their human rights. With a deaf community of millions, a substantial part of the population of India is such that needs to have a language of their own, exclusively based on signs that can help leverage their position in a society not yet coming to encompass a normalised view of disabilities. And while this demand of the country’s hearing impaired population, organised under the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) have been taken into cognisance long back leading to the announcement of the setting up of the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Center (ISLRTC) in 2010- 11 and its subsequent establishment in 2015, there continued to exist a certain lacunae that could not effectively cater to the needs of this section of citizens, ignoring instead their problems and ensuring therefore no improvement in their standing in society. The problem largely rested with the inexistence of a singular medium of communication for the deaf people, through which they could not just press their demands and concerns but also help themselves be empowered and self sufficient by educating and training themselves. In the absence of an appropriate nationwide language that could be their mode of learning to fit in with the world, the Indian deaf community has indeed been confined to an existence that does not let them evolve outside the limits of their inaccessibility to a language suited to served their interests.

It therefore served as quite a win in calling the shots at life when the first ever Indian Sign Language dictionary was launched by the ISLRTC in 2018. The Indian Sign Language (ISL) while has existed since long in history and has quite evolved in the last century, it had been the lack of a comprehensive document that brought together all its elements in communication to serve as a commonly reliable source facilitating expression for the deaf community that served as the faulty link behind its inefficiency in implementation. In fact, it had been as early as 2001 that the first ever course for learning ISL was approved by the Rehabilitation Council of India, imparted at first at the national level and expanding since to regional centers across the country but what still impeded the expanse of it from growing were a number of factors, most prominent of which would be the absence of an authenticated source of instructions to go by. With the launch of its first ever sign language dictionary comprising a total of 3000 terms that was aimed to help eliminate communication barriers for the deaf community by providing more information in the Indian version of the sign language, the stage was well set in institutionalising the incorporation of the hearing impaired people of the country into the mainstream society by allowing them also access to exercising their right to freedom of expression. With signs of everyday use and their corresponding English and Hindi words, as well as specialized terms from legal, academic, medical, and technical fields included, the dictionary received also a follow up with its second edition of some 6000 general and specialized terms launched a year later. The 3rd edition released recently in February this year added an even more extensive list of terms, totalling some 10000 of them, encompassing the scientific basis upon which the Indian Sign Language has evolved. Throughout its inception and launch and subsequent editions, the dictionary has aimed to develop the grammar and bilingualism of the sign language thus making it more standardised, even taking into account regional variations to help facilitate a more accurate interpretation of what is sought to be communicated. But the primary motive behind the development of the dictionary was to bring into greater public awareness the knowledge of the Indian Sign Language that could help the deaf community help themselves avail of this mode of communication available at their disposal. This indeed marked a greater necessity in being able to achieve what the ISLRTC envisaged with the launch of the country’s first ever sign language dictionary, of popularising and spreading the fore of the language for the advantage of the 18 million deaf and hearing impaired population who however are restricted to just some 700 schools imparting education in what would be their first language, thus significantly limiting the scope of their access to a range of opportunities and skills that would have otherwise furthered their pursuit of a more equal, fair existence in society.

Despite however the launch of the dictionary in what is a first ever step of significance in the greater interests of the deaf population, sign language isn’t yet an officially recognised language in India. The NAD though has been contending to accord the Indian Sign Language the status of its 23rd official language to further facilitate the opening up of opportunities for a more egalitarian inclusion of the deaf community. Supporting it in its demand for such inclusivity has been popular Bollywood celebrity Ranveer Singh who through his label IncInk released rapper- poet Spitfire’s sign-language video Vartalap to help attract more attention to this concern and incorporate the ISL as an official Indian language through a constitutional amendment. The efforts paid off substantially, though not fully yet, as the new National Education Policy of 2020 advocated the standardisation of the ISL as a significant step to this effect.

The demands raised by the NAD however are not unprecedented in its beckoning, as a similar such campaign to recognise sign language as an official language was also started by Delhi based disability rights activist Nipun Malhotra in 2018. As the person behind the Nipman Foundation that has worked extensively with the deaf community in India, Malhotra understood the importance of the sign language for that section of the population who rely on it as their only mode of expression and communication. This led him to file a PIL in the Delhi High Court, seeking official recognition for the ISL under the VIII Schedule of the Indian Constitution while also attempting to stir up public debate on the issue. As a move that when implemented would mandate the centre to promote and develop the language while also allowing it to be another medium through which prestigious public exams like the UPSC would need to be conducted, the official recognition would introduce a level playing ground for all, including the hearing impaired people who till now have been denied free and fair access to such opportunities of life. Efforts such as these, by individuals as well by associations and organisations could help realise the pursuit of making the Indian Sign Language an indispensable medium of communication through which a lot many linguistic barriers can be effectively impaired, trading off for the desirable status of an empowered existence for the many hearing impaired people of the country.

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