International Day of Sign Languages: Identifying Its Relevance

Sign Languages
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We often take for granted certain gifts that we have been bestowed with. A healthy body, functioning organs, the ability to see, speak, and hear, and, most importantly, an active mind. We forget that these powers have not been granted to everyone. We don’t bother to comprehend the difficulties faced by folks who lack all or some of these abilities in an increasingly ableist society.  In order to draw our attention to people with certain special needs, 23rd September has been proclaimed as the International Day of Sign Languages by the UN General Assembly.

The objective is to raise awareness regarding the importance of sign language and to ensure the full realization of the human rights of people who are deaf. It provides a unique opportunity to people across the globe to support and protect the linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all deaf people and other sign language users.

What are sign languages?

Sign languages are full-fledged natural languages, structurally distinct from spoken languages. They involve the use of visual cues such as hand gestures, signals, facial and expressions. Closer home, Indian Sign Language (ISL) has been taught since 2001 and has evolved over the last century. It is utilized in the deaf community all over India, which includes deaf people, hearing children of deaf adults, hearing parents of hearing-impaired children and hearing educators for deaf people.

The History behind ISL

It is not surprising to learn that it was Sibaji Panda, a deaf teacher, who developed and launched the first-ever formal training course in ISL at the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of Speech and Hearing Disabilities (AYJNISHD). Panda is a founding member of both the Indian Sign Language Teacher’s Association and the Indian Sign Language Interpreter’s Association (ISLIA).

Need for Standardisation and Official Recognition

Merely developing a uniquely Indian Sign Language is not enough. There is a need to ensure that sign language is standardized in the country for the dual purposes of education and enabling the deaf to secure jobs in the private and public sectors. People in India speak a variety of languages as their first language. As a result, ISL ensures consistency. Standardization will ensure adherence to a more uniform teaching methodology across schools in the country. Furthermore, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act places the onus on educational institutions to ensure accessible facilities and adequate opportunities for the development of persons who are blind or deaf, or both. Section 17 of the Act goes one step further and makes it mandatory for Government and local authorities to train teachers in sign language and Braille to promote inclusivity among students. The objectives enlisted in the act can only be achieved through a standardized language, applicable across the nation.

In light of this pressing requirement, The National Education Policy (NEP) seeks to revolutionize the way in which ISL is taught and understood. The policy states that “ISL will be standardized across the country, and national and state curriculum materials will be created for students with hearing impairment. Local sign languages will be respected and taught where possible and appropriate.” In the same vein, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment launched the third edition of the digital Indian Sign Language dictionary, containing 10,000 terms across six categories. It is available for download on Play Store. 

What Next?

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 6.3 million people in India have complete or partial hearing loss. And it is estimated that less than 2% of these have received formal training in the use of ISL. It is expected that acquiring higher knowledge and skills through ISL will enable people with hearing disabilities to find jobs other than those reserved for government employees. The hope is that this will result in the overall growth of children and young adults with hearing disabilities.

However, the most important and perhaps the most difficult step that needs to be taken to ensure a more accessible, egalitarian world for persons with hearing disabilities is to bring about an attitude shift among the rest of the populace. The stigma and prejudice associated with the use of sign language is what deters most parents of deaf kids and deaf individuals themselves from learning the Indian Sign Language. On this International Day of Sign Languages, we must pledge to learn the Indian sign language, seek to donate to organizations and NGOs that work towards promoting and teaching ISL, and debunk the taboos associated with the use of sign language.


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