Activists Hope Standardisation of Indian Sign Language Will Pave Way for Inclusivity

Activists want steps to be taken to train the deaf to become teachers and hope that ISL will be made an official language.

New Delhi: Having experienced the social stigma of using sign language, Anuj Jain, executive director of National Association of the Deaf, believes that standardisation of Indian Sign Language (ISL) is very important both for the purpose of education and for enabling the deaf to secure jobs in the private and government sectors.

On July 30, when the National Education Policy (NEP) declared that ISL would be standardised, it gave many like Jain a glimmer of hope. “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 policy says.

‘Only a minuscule percentage formally trained in ISL’

The World Health Organisation estimates that there are around 6.3 million people in India who have complete or partial hearing disability. And out of these, less than 2% are believed to have been formally trained in the use of ISL, which uses hand gestures and mouth movement for communication. It is expected that acquiring higher knowledge and skills through ISL will enable persons with hearing disabilities to secure more jobs, apart from the ones reserved in the government sector.

Talking to The Wire with the help of an interpreter, Jain said the move offers hope for the overall growth of children with hearing disabilities. He said in the absence of use of sign language by teachers, nearly 98% of children with hearing disabilities remain illiterate or drop out of school.

Anuj Jain. Photo: nadindia.org

On the need for standardisation of ISL, Jain said, “In India, people speak different languages as their mother tongue. So ISL provides uniformity.” He said Section 24 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 deals with education says those who are teaching children with hearing disabilities must know sign language. “But for three years, little has happened. Last year, we came together and made a lot of suggestions in this regard,” Jain says.

Jain says standardisation will ensure adherence to teaching methodology, adding, “The main problem is that teachers do not use sign language and they only promote oral systems. Also, hearing parents are unable to gauge the development of their deaf child properly. So there is no communication happening at any end.”

Social stigma and use of sign language

Jain also noted that sometimes, the parents are ‘ashamed’ of their deaf children and this attitude is a big problem. “For this reason, they often discourage their children from using sign language. In my case, my three sisters and I were deaf, while one of our siblings is able to hear. Our parents used to discourage us from signing, especially before guests and we used to wonder, ‘Why can’t we communicate properly?’.”

He said when his daughter was born, his parents were concerned if she would have hearing disabilities. “It was when she grew up and began both talking and using sign language that they learnt the importance of this form of communication.”

Also Read: Comprehending the Complexities of Sign Language

Jain said even in sign language there are variations. “The important thing is that we promote ISL. It would make the education of the Deaf community easier.”

While ordinarily, the vocabulary in sign language in India covers around 3,000-4,000 words, he said around 10,000 words are being covered under the ISL right now. The work on developing the ISL is being done by the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC), which was set up under the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2011. It released the first ISL dictionary of 3,000 words in 2018.

“They started with 3,000 words and added another 3,000 words later. So 6,000 words are ready right now. They are working on 4,000 more words, but due to COVID-19 it has got delayed,” Jain said, adding that in future the number of words would increase with more technical ones being added to the list.

‘Allow the deaf too to get BEd certification’

The government, Jain said, is also developing curriculum for Class X and Class XI in sign language through the National Institute of Open Schooling. “It would provide the whole course in different subjects like Maths and Science. It is taking time but the process has started.

He said since the deaf can prove to be great trainers, the National Association of the Deaf has urged the Rehabilitation Council of India, which provides various courses to persons with disabilities, to allow the deaf to join the Bachelor of Education course. This will enable members of the community to get involved in teaching other persons with the disability. “Right now, only persons with hearing are able to do it,” he pointed out.

A workshop for persons with hearing disabilities. Photo: nadindia.org

‘Standardisation will absorb variations in ISL’

Rati Misra, who is an advisor at the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), said standardisation will help in the absorption of variations in the ISL. She said in India, people have largely been following either the British or the American Sign Language – depending on who set up the schools in India – along with the influence of their own local language. “So there is a need to standardise the language as there are a lot of variations,” she said.

“Sometimes for indicating one thing, you find people using different signs. For a girl, in north India, the sign is to point at the nose ring. Whereas in the south, the person points at the bindi or the centre of the forehead. On the other hand, there are certain words for which the sign is the same – as for couple and pair,” Misra said.

These variations will lead to problems if ISL is used in higher education and other advanced needs without standardisation, she said.

It is crucial for teachers to receive proper training, she said. “Even when you talk of academics, the reason why persons with hearing disabilities drop out much earlier, usually by Class VIII, is that the teachers do not know the sign language to teach the children beyond that level. This exercise would remove such shortcomings.”

Also Read: ‘Inclusivity Through Music’: India’s First Sign Language Rap Video

‘Make ISL official language’

Disability rights activist Satendra Singh said it is important to standardise ISL to enable people from one part of the country to understand those from another part through sign language. “There are regional variations rights now which make this difficult. I remember we had a conference in Delhi, where there were people from Hyderabad and from north India. Those from Hyderabad faced a lot of problem in understanding what was being conveyed through sign language. That needs to be addressed.”

He demanded that ISL should be considered an official language. “This has been a long-standing demand of the disabled community because even at important national events or meets, ISL is not used right now and this prohibits the deaf from understanding what is being said.”

This can have serious consequences, Singh said, pointing out that a recent global survey showed that in a large number of countries, including India, the government’s press briefings on COVID-19 were not inclusive for deaf people. “Sign language was not used,” he said.

‘Regional consultation needed on standardisation’

During the exercise to standardise ISL, Singh said regional consultation is necessary. “This is important to ensure that only Delhi-based or north Indian organisations do not determine how it is standardised. You need to have stakeholders from the south, west, east and northeast India too during such deliberations.”

Also, he said, the needs of deaf-blind should be addressed. “They depend on tactile sign language and communicate by touching the hand. They prefer American Sign Language. It is easier for them and so their genuine concerns should be taken into account.”

Note: The word ‘flaw’ was removed from Rati Misra’s description of the ISL as that was not the word she had used.