Nothing to ‘fix’: Sign Language and Deaf Culture in Delhi

An illustration of two people seated across a table in a room. One of them is signing to the other in a conversation over a cup of tea.

A fully formed linguistic culture exists around sign language and the idea that deaf people need to be “fixed” by making them hear is ableist at its core. Deaf culture dismantles this idea, by emphasising the formation of strong communities, shared hobbies, and collective experiences.

By Akshita Nagpal

In a classroom among the many in a three-storey Noida building, 27-year-old Shweta Goyal teaches nearly 40 pupils, aged between their late-teens and early twenties. There’s no spoken word as Goyal teaches what she herself learnt only last year — Indian Sign Language (ISL). Her learning of ISL was also at the same institution, the Noida Deaf Society (NDS). ISL is a language of hand movements and gestures, and is the primary language for persons with hearing and speaking disabilities.

A person with deafness herself, Goyal moved to this Delhi suburb in 2018 to learn signing. Her friends, specifically in online communities, catalysed this decision. Goyal eventually picked a teaching job here, rather than using her fashion designing diploma done in her home city of Haryana’s Panipat.

As a child, she would commute for two hours every day for school in the state’s Rohtak district.

At Kripal Badhir School, a school for deaf persons, her teachers — none of whom were themselves deaf — did not teach in ISL. Goyal managed school by reading text on the blackboard and from teachers’ lip movements. She tells me all this through Manish Shukla, an NDS staffer, who interprets my spoken words and Goyal’s manual communication in ISL. ‘Explanation was difficult at school,’ Goyal says.

In September 2018, Nipun Malhotra, a disability rights activist who lives with a locomotor disability, petitioned the Delhi High Court to make Indian Sign Language India’s twenty-third official language. This entails preserving and promoting ISL like other official languages in this linguistically organised Union of India. 

ISL is essential for communication for over 71 lakh Indians (that’s nearly as much as the population of Hong Kong), according to the Census of 2011. ‘It’s such a shame, right, that we just have close to 800 ISL interpreters in the entire country?’ asks Malhotra. The number of certified ISL interpreters is even lower, at 300, as per the Indian Sign Language and Research Training Centre (ISLRTC), a government institution set up in 2015 in Delhi to promote learning of ISL. ‘If you look at any foreign language in India, it would have thousands of interpreters as against ISL, that’s an Indian language.’ 

This thought wasn’t the only trigger for Malhotra’s petition.

Malhotra’s interactions with friends and colleagues from the deaf community, and with companies and institutions gave him insights into the challenges faced by the community. ‘When I took a workshop for Delhi Police personnel, most of them sadly didn’t even know about Indian Sign Language,’ he says. 

Dr Alim Chandani, a deaf rights activist who was born with deafness and who founded Access Mantra, a resource centre for deaf persons in India, agrees. ‘Making sign language official will provide a positive transformation to deaf education by pushing the teachers to learn and teach in sign language.’

According to him, barely any of the 350 deaf schools in India use a bilingual approach — that is, teaching in sign language as well as English.

‘I had grown up in a mainstreamed environment and until I went to college in the USA at the age of 21, where I met over 2,000 deaf persons who were using sign language, I was never confident or comfortable in expressing [myself],’ Dr Chandani says over text message. ‘From then on, I embraced my identity with confidence and was able to achieve a PhD.’ His PhD dissertation focused on the feasibility of managing deaf programmes in higher education institutions in India.

One of Goyal’s students, 19-year-old Jyoti Makhija, also found that her private school in Vikas Puri had no ISL-trained teachers or interpreters. She and her friends invented a personalised sign language to communicate — a common practice among persons with hearing disability to whom language is denied.

‘I teach my parents and sibling what I learn here and now we’re able to converse a bit,’ Makhija says of her first go at learning ISL, that started only in May 2018. 

She commutes 42 kilometres each way between her home in Delhi’s Tihar Village and NDS. She points to the wall opposite to her to tell me what signing has taught her. Five words in multiple colours are painted on this wall — dedication, responsibility, education, attitude, motivation. She beams when I turn back to her after reading them.

A person wearing a pink collared t-shirt is looking to the front while holding a pen on a notebook.

Credit: Maria Zaikina via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2017, a video of an American infant called Charlotte Keane — who was born with a condition called bilateral congenital profound hearing loss — reacting to hearing her mother’s voice for the first time, went viral. Her condition meant she could not hear. 

Prior to that video, Keane had been provided hearing aids to make her ‘brain and auditory nerve used to vibrations and simulation…’ In the two years since then, Charlotte’s parents had her fitted with cochlear implants and started training her in American Sign Language (ASL). Over two years old now, Charlotte communicates by speaking and hearing, and by signing in ASL, as she wishes. Her mother has documented this learning journey on her Instagram account.

To the majority of people who hear, this may seem like a straightforward story. But these choices between hearing and signing are a rare luxury for a majority of people with deafness. They are also part of a major ethical debate on deafness and disability — deaf activists have majorly pushed back against the idea of forcing deaf people to hear and ‘assimilate’ by using technologies like cochlear implants.

‘The Deaf (with a capital ‘D’) are a tight-knit community. They view deafness not as a medical condition to be cured, but as a cultural identity to be celebrated,’ writes Carina Davis in an essay for Nature.

Deaf culture stands against the impulse to force people to hear, insisting that oral language is not the only language that deserves legitimacy. A fully formed linguistic culture exists around sign language and the idea that deaf people need to be ‘fixed’ by making them hear is ableist at its core. Deaf culture dismantles this idea, by emphasising the formation of strong communities, shared hobbies, and collective experiences.

‘It is natural for deaf [people] to sign with their hands,’ Dr Chandani says. ‘So why invest so much money in “fixing” the ear when we have such a beautiful language and culture to embrace?’

An island containing a thriving example of deaf culture exists in New Delhi’s Kamla Market.

The Delhi Association for the Deaf was started in 1950, though it took on its present name only in 1977. Until then it was called the Deaf and Dumb Association — derogatory terms that have since been replaced with growing public awareness about the impact of ableist language.

Amar Dev, a support staff member here, shows me his membership card — a photo ID that is held by over 1,500 others across India (as part of the All India Federation of the Deaf). Members participate in annual events like sports day (for school children), annual day, dating and marriage congregations, picnics and festival celebrations, and avail assistance in navigating interactions with governments, local bodies, and legal as well as other institutions. Every Wednesday and Saturday, members also come to the association’s premises — the size of neighbouring shops in this market — to socialise.

Dev came to Delhi from his village in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, when he was seven years old, the age that the younger of his two sons is now. His father admitted him as a boarder at Government Lady Noyce Senior Secondary School for the Deaf in the walled city’s Delhi Gate area. He studied here until class 9, and then moved to work in the informal sector. ‘Before joining here recently, I worked as a helper in a one-room school, and with a mechanic,’ Dev says.

Unlike Dev, his wife who grew up in the village, had no access to ISL. She picked up a little sign language in Delhi, where she lived in a shanty in Kalkaji after her marriage to Dev. ‘She has mental health problems, and has left Delhi with my younger son for our village,’ Dev says. Neither of their children are deaf.

Raja, the interpreter who facilitates my conversation with Dev, is hearing and can sign, and runs a shop selling air-coolers opposite the Association’s office. ‘I have a seasonal business of six months, the rest of the time I’m a social worker.’ Raja identifies as a [sign-language] interpreter and an advisor to the organisation, with which has been associated with for over three decades

‘In the 1980s, I was at an event for deaf persons at the YMCA along with my deaf friend,’ Raja says. ‘The chief guest spoke his address even as there was no sign language interpreter.’ The event prompted Raja to learn sign language himself and to start work with the Association.

Ruma Roka, the founder of Noida Deaf Society, has a similar story. ‘I saw a lady signing the Sunday news on Doordarshan and that was the catalyst,’ she says, ‘I had no background of deafness.’ She learnt ISL, and became the first teacher at the NDS. The institutions now has 57 trainers working across five Indian states. NDS also holds bi-weekly classes for hearing persons who want to learn sign language, in addition to weekend classes for parents of deaf persons. ‘We have to let go of the rigid mindsets that we have to teach them [deaf persons] to speak,’ she says, ‘Let’s get into the new “normal”, which is acceptance.’

In July 2019, the Delhi High Court gave its judgement on Nipun Malhotra’s petition, declining official language status to ISL while stating that adequate legal protections for ISL already exist. Despite this, Malhotra believes his petition triggered a useful conversation. ‘ISLRTC has become more active; during this year’s Cricket World Cup, for the first time there were sign language commentators, and the Indian National Congress in its 2019 manifesto promised to recognise sign language if it came to power,’ Malhotra says.

In March 2019, ISLRTC came up with second edition of its sign-language dictionary, as a follow-up to India’s first-ever ISL dictionary that it launched last year. Malhotra now hopes that the government will introduce a bill in Parliament to recognise ISL as India’s 23rd official language. 

‘This PIL was the first step to ensure that the government starts working on sign language,’ he says.

On my way back from NDS, I rode for part of my journey in the Delhi Metro with NDS staffer Kalaparthi Sudheer, who showed me a YouTube tutorial on sign language. At the end of the journey, I thanked him for his help, in ISL.

Akshita Nagpal is an independent multimedia journalist based in New Delhi. She tweets at @AkshitaNagpal.

Featured image credit: Yamuna Matheswaran