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National Education Policy: A new dawn for Indian Sign Language?

A century after its first documented use, the NEP aims to standardize the teaching of Indian Sign Language to the hearing and speech challenged

The National Education Policy aims to standardize the teaching of Indian Sign Language. (Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/HT PHOTO)
The National Education Policy aims to standardize the teaching of Indian Sign Language. (Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/HT PHOTO)

Madan Vasishta, now 79, lost his hearing at age 11 after a bout of mumps and typhoid. But it wasn’t until he was 20 that he first learnt about sign language.

“I stayed in my village (in Himachal Pradesh), herding cattle and ploughing fields until I was 20," he writes on email. “I moved to Delhi to join a photography school for the deaf in 1961. That is when I first saw two deaf guys signing to each other. I was mesmerized (by) how they could understand each other by using their hands."

Vasishta picked up the signs and soon became a fluent user. Equipped with these new skills, he went on pursue higher education at Gallaudet University, a private university in the US that focuses on the education of the deaf. In the decades that followed, he undertook pioneering research in what would come to be recognized as the Indian Sign Language (ISL) in 1977. Its use would often prompt people to “stop and stare", says Vasishta, who has written several books on ISL as well as his own experiences. “It’s true even now."

But there is hope that the situation will improve. On 30 July, for the first time, the National Education Policy (NEP) declared its intent to formalize and promote the use of ISL: “Indian Sign Language (ISL) will be standardised across the country and National and State curriculum materials developed, for use by students with hearing impairment. Local sign languages will be respected and taught as well, where possible and relevant."

The details are not known yet but for advocates of ISL, the policy intent is the culmination of a century-old struggle. According to a World Health Organization report, India has around 6.3 million people who suffer from partial or total loss of hearing.

So, what is Indian Sign Language? Broadly, it’s a set of hand and facial gestures used to communicate, most often by the hearing and speech impaired. It has its own grammar, syntax and regional “dialects", essentially different gestures for the same word or sentiment. Research over the years has found that the ISL shares several similarities with the sign languages used in Pakistan and Nepal. The main difference from spoken languages lies in form: Sign languages are visual, spoken ones are auditory.

The world has over 135 sign languages. The earliest documented use of ISL was in the 19th century, but it carried the stigma of impairment well into the 20th century.“Education of deaf children in India has been strictly oral since the first school was established in Bombay in 1885," writes Vasishta in a paper titled Indian Sign Language And Bilingual Education. “Oral" here translates into lip-reading and speech therapy. “The students did use signs for communicating with each other, which had led to the development of flourishing sign languages in schools for the deaf in India at that time... However, even in the pure oral schools, signing is strictly banned and anyone caught signing is punished using rulers to hit their knuckles." ISL was still used, but only in dormitories.

“Every parent wants to have their child hear and talk like any other child," says V.P. Shah, former principal of the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of Speech and Hearing Disabilities, Mumbai. “When a child is found lacking, doctors and medical colleges prescribe medicines at parental insistence." This can take years, time that is crucial for a child to develop language faculties. And it could be followed by years of speech therapy. Often, lip-reading would be prioritized over sign language. “In the meantime," says Dr Shah, “the child doesn’t get to learn speech or signs."

Despite the increasing number of NGOs and private organizations teaching ISL, Dr Shah estimates that less than 1% of those with hearing and speech impairments have been formally trained in the language. According to the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), a number of schools for the deaf stop teaching after class VIII because they don’t have trained teachers.

The absence of avenues clipsboth aspirations and career prospects, says T.K.M. Sandeep, vice-president of NAD and a deaf person himself. “In other countries, the jobs are given on a merit basis," he says via an interpreter. “In India, it is on a reservation basis (there’s a 3% quota for the differently-abled in the public sector). They are using it because there are no proper schools. If deaf people get a government job, they are happy to work as a peon also. But I am not happy about that. I want deaf people to come up in good skills. I don’t want reservation."

In 2001, the Ali Yavar institute designed a course to create and groom ISL trainers across India. Ten years later, the Union ministry of social justice set up the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) in Delhi. In 2018, the centre came up with the first ISL dictionary, of 3,000 words. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, took the process forward, prescribing inclusive sign language education and accessibility in public buildings.

But much remains to be done. Even the ISLRTC, says Vasishta, has never had a deaf person as director.

The standardization of ISL, say advocates, is an important first step. “It will offer access wherever they wish to go. Tomorrow, if a deaf person from Manipur goes to Bengaluru, she can communicate because the sign language will be the same. It will be like speaking English wherever one goes," says Ruma Roka, founder of the Noida Deaf Society.

Moreover, proficiency in ISL will open up the world of other sign languages and comprehension of spoken languages. It will be possible to learn international variants, useful for those seeking to live and work abroad.

Roka offers a word of caution, however: We should not fall into the trap of prioritizing one dialect over the other. “India is a diverse, multilingual country. Sign languages are different in different parts." The process of standardizing ISL should thus be collaborative and consultative, she says. “Let a thousand flowers bloom."

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