Oralism is the huge, entirely avoidable barrier that Deaf people are forced to face

A teacher and child sit in a classroom, both holding pieces of origami. There is a blackboard on the wall with multiplication problems scribbled on it, and a shelf with a globe and some books on it. A leafy tree can be seen from the classroom window.

The hearing world must understand how central sign language is to us, as it is our only accessible means of communication.

When I was 18, I applied to go to college. I was fairly sure I’d be given admission, especially because I had decent grades. Imagine my surprise when the principal of the college I’d applied to refused to give me admission. When I asked why, I was told that he expected me to fail and bring shame to the college. Why? Because I am deaf. Anger does not begin to explain what I felt that day.

In a society that upholds conventional hearing as the norm, deaf people have to deal with many such situations. Oralism, an ideology and practice that pushes for communication that is based only on speech, is encouraged from a really young age. As a result, we negotiate constantly with schools, colleges, workspaces, bureaucracies and families that don’t acknowledge our preference for sign language over oral languages.

As for me, I identify as both Deaf and deaf. The identity Deaf — with a capital D — represents my involvement with deaf networks, relationships and sign language. But I also identify as deaf as I interact with the hearing world, a world that does not acknowledge my identity and communication needs.

My Deaf identity comes with a sense of community with other deaf people, and I wear it with pride. The hearing world, on the other hand, tries to reduce us to people whose defining feature is not being able to ‘hear’ — a medical diagnosis.

Not respecting the importance of sign language in deaf people’s lives greatly affects every aspect of our existence. It hinders our education, our job prospects, and daily communication. Indian Sign Language is a language in its own right, with its own style, grammar, and syntax, and it should be recognised as one.

The costs of not doing so are heavy — immense amounts of Deaf potential is hidden because of communication barriers. The hearing world must understand how central sign language is to us, as it is our only accessible means of communication.

Unfortunately, this isn’t at all acknowledged. The dominance of oralism means that, for instance, schools enforce hearing-aids on younger deaf children and force them to learn by speaking. This approach to education is a huge barrier that I and countless other deaf people have personally experienced.

As you can imagine, the first few years of school were difficult for me. I went to a deaf school where we had to try to listen to the teacher speaking, write down answers, and learn them. This was not an effective method at all as we were forced to lip-read the instructions.

I moved to a hearing school at the age of 13 because my teacher at the deaf school was refusing to let me move from my class to the next one, not because I was doing anything wrong, but because I was the only student in my batch and if I stayed behind I could join a batch of four students next year! This was unacceptable to my mother, who is a teacher herself. She moved me to a hearing school where I was the only deaf student in the classroom.

I used to be very worried about talking to my hearing classmates; I just didn’t have the confidence for it. As for the classes, I did not understand anything we were being taught. I coped with it by copying everything from the classmate who would sit next to me, and having my family explain everything to me after I got home from school.

This is how much deaf kids struggle in any kind of school. They are not taught sign language in ‘special schools’, and mainstream schools almost never admit them anyway. Even when they do, they never make time to accommodate deaf students’ use of sign language.

What can make things better for us at this most basic level? Quite simply, we need deaf teachers. Hearing teachers should fully know sign language or be bilingual (in both sign and speech). Interpreters should be made available in mainstream hearing schools.

Image description: Hello spelled out in British Sign Language.

Courtesy: Jen Collins on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Naturally, this barrier to communication extends beyond schools and into the job market.

In my case, even getting an interview for a job at a company proved tricky. The Human Resources department wasn’t sure how we could communicate. My sister helped with this, but once I got the job, there were day-to-day issues even with basic communication.

The solution I was able to find was for the company to type out instructions on the computer for me to follow. I had a good experience with this company, but there were certainly many opportunities I missed out on that hearing people could easily access. For example, I and my deaf colleagues weren’t able to attend a work-related conference — and although we were given a briefing later, it was just not the same.

Things aren’t just difficult in public spaces — home can often also be a challenging space. I have a very supportive family that treats me with respect and understands my Deaf identity, but the same is not true for most deaf people.

I once had a friend whose family only talked to him and never bothered to learn sign language. They even used to make phone calls to him rather than messaging or texting him. How would he know what they are saying?

What helps us deal with these challenges is the fact that Deaf people have tight-knit communities all over India. We share similar experiences, struggles, challenges, and hence we are all connected. There is politics too, but that is true of all communities.

These bonds are nurtured and valued primarily because of our love and attachment to sign language and the common experiences of joy as well as oppression that we have to face.

Our strong sense of community and need for justice has led deaf people to make efforts on many levels and I do believe that things are getting better for us. Today the Rights of People with Disabilities Act in India talks about accessible education, the need for sign language interpreters, equal opportunities in education and employment. The setting up of the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre has been a step in the right direction too.

The Deaf community is very diverse and vibrant. We count Deaf, deaf, Hard of Hearing, Deafblind, and Deaf people with multiple disabilities (though these disabilities are rarely recognised) among our numbers. It’s important to remember that each person within this community has unique experiences.

When I was younger, I knew of people who were ashamed of sign language. This is obviously because they and their families never thought that being deaf is something one can be proud of.

Today I see this changing a little bit, but by and large, people still look at disability from a lens of sympathy. We would prefer to be approached with empathy, as well as be given access to equal opportunities, and a life of dignity.

By Mohd. Aqil Hajee, as told to Shruti Vaidya and interpreted by Atiya Hajee.

Mohd. Aqil Hajee is Deaf. He founded Leadership Empowerment Education of the Deaf (LEED) in Pune where he trained deaf people in English grammar. He loves long drives, watching movies, and hanging out with friends.

Shruti Vaidya is a PhD student at the University of Chicago. She works in the field of Deaf and Disability studies.

Atiya Hajee is a professional sign language interpreter and the General Secretary of the Indian Sign Language Interpreters Association.

Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal