As a new PIL seeks constitutional status for the language, TOI looks at how it will give the deaf better access to education, employment, and a social life

Swati Indulkar, a Mumbai resident who was diagnosed with profound hearing loss at birth, started attending a school for the deaf at six months of age but she was never taught Indian Sign Language (ISL). “The teachers would insist that we talk and lip-read so we could communicate with hearing people,” explains Indulkar. Despite 15 years of schooling, her ability to communicate using these techniques remains rudimentary. Today, she prefers using an informal sign language — furtively invented by her deaf classmates — because it’s the only way she can express complex thoughts and ideas. Fortunately, her husband, Shailendra Indulkar, attended the same school and so they communicate seamlessly.

Hopefully, a new PIL, asking that ISL be considered the 23rd official language of India, will prevent another generation of deaf kids from being deprived of access to their “native” language. “Deafness doesn’t diminish the chance to have an enriched life, but society not appreciating their language does,” explains Nipun Malhotra, a disability rights activist, who filed the PIL in the Delhi High Court in August. The HC agreed to hear the petition earlier this month.

If ISL is included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, deaf candidates can finish their education and appear for competitive exams in sign language. Shailendra, for instance, couldn’t study beyond 10th grade because of a paucity of colleges catering to deaf students, while Swati gave up after completing her 12th grade from a mainstream college. And though both have picked up ISL since school, they are being denied promotions in their government jobs because the mandatory skill training is conducted without interpreters.

The deaf community has long debated oral versus manual modes of communication. Those in favour of signing cite studies showing that deaf children, who sign from an early age, quickly grasp written language, while oralists argue that sign language isolates the deaf community, invites discrimination, and limits a deaf child’s educational and professional opportunities. Today, there are more than 550 schools for the hearing impaired in India and almost all emphasise speech over signing, which has led to a massive shortage of deaf educators fluent in ISL. But this trend might soon be reversed. Last week, the Central Board of Secondary Education announced that it was planning to allow deaf students to take ISL as a second language.

Alim Chandani, 40, a product of oral education, is now a strong proponent of ISL. Born deaf in Mumbai, he moved to the UK at the age of three. He attended a boarding school for five years where he was taught to speak instead of sign, before transitioning to a mainstream school in California where he had to read lips and compete with hearing peers without access to any support services. “I didn’t know about deaf culture or that we have our own native language until I was 21 and attended the Rochester Institute of Technology,” says Chandani, using a mix of American and Indian Sign Language. In about a year, he was conversant in ASL and his confidence soared because he no longer had to communicate using clumsy, garbled speech. “Before I learned to sign, I didn’t have friends. I didn’t have a social life. I didn’t have an identity without language,” signs Chandani. “Today, I’m proud of being deaf.”

Currently, ISL doesn’t have any famous poets or songwriters, but India is slowly waking up to its artistry. Chandani’s Centum-Gro Initiative, which aims to create “deaf changemakers”, has inspired a few ISL poems. In one, two deaf poets — one makes the facial expressions, the other the hand gestures — beautifully mime a person’s daily routine down to the most banal detail like using a tongue cleaner. But the most poignant artwork is a mural on Bandra’s Carter Road showing deaf people holding up a banner saying, “Use Sign Language,” as their shackles break free.