magine a thriller movie where zombies have invaded earth. The majority of people would receive information and alerts on what they would need to do to save themselves. Do you think Deaf people would have access to these important alerts in their first language, Indian Sign Language?
That is exactly what Deaf Indians have been going through ever since the coronavirus pandemic started. Crucial information reached us last.
For the last one year, the Deaf community has been pushing the Narendra Modi government to make Indian Sign Language as India’s twenty-third official language. Had it been done, it would have a significant impact on the crisis that we are facing today.
As a Deaf person in India, I have witnessed the major victory of mandating the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD), 2016 into Indian law on 19 April 2017. This pandemic is probably the first national crisis since the RPWD Act was passed.
I have identified four important issues of the Deaf community that need to be addressed during the coronavirus pandemic:
— Do Deaf students, who were ordered to go back home from colleges and schools, have access to coronavirus-related information?
— Are the helplines accessible to Deaf people?
— Do the Deaf people in India have access to news and media updates on Covid-19?
— Are the doctors and nurses aware and prepared to provide accessibility services to Deaf patients?
Situation at home for Deaf children
Most Deaf children are born to hearing parents. Out of the 20 lakh Deaf children in India, about 12 lakh are currently enrolled in more than 500 schools. The majority of the existing teachers do not use Indian Sign Language as their primary language to teach Deaf children. Instead, they only speak and gesture with their hands. Deaf students do not understand them. As a result, they fall behind in studies. However, at Deaf institutions that offer boarding facilities, students use ISL to communicate with each other. Unfortunately, Deaf students cannot use ISL in class because teachers are not fluent in it.
When PM Modi ordered a 21-day lockdown in India, all Deaf children were sent back home. Most of them were scared because don’t have access to Indian Sign Language at home. Majority of parents are unable to fully communicate with their Deaf children because they are not fluent in Indian Sign Language. It is likely that these children are experiencing confusion, anxiety, and depression due to coronavirus scare and the lockdown.
This wouldn’t have happened if all schools followed this example from Haryana.
There are eight schools under the Haryana Welfare Society for Persons with Speech and Hearing Impairment. Recently, the group has transformed the schools into a ‘sign language space’ where each school has Deaf instructors and an ISL interpreter. Plus, each of the schools offers ISL classes on weekends for parents.
If this was enforced in all the schools for the Deaf in India, we would not have to worry about answering these questions: Are the teachers and administrators are equipped to prepare their students for this pandemic? Have they provided guidance to the children’s parents and the children on how they could be prepared mentally and emotionally in Indian Sign Language? How would the Deaf students continue their studies at home? Are teachers trained on how to provide additional visual resources for parents to use with their Deaf children such as reading storybooks or do hands-on activities using Indian Sign Language?
If Indian Sign Language becomes the 23rd official language of India, Deaf students would have access to information from parents and teachers in school and at home.
This is the reason why many Deaf associations have been advocating for the National Education Policy 2019 to mandate all teachers for the Deaf be fluent in Indian Sign Language.
Accessibility to helplines
There are 24-hour coronavirus helplines for Indians. Is it accessible to the Deaf? How can Deaf individuals reach out when they need help? Recently, the government-funded Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare requested the Modi government to make their announcements in the Indian Sign Language. The government only provided phone numbers and email addresses for people to contact.
Unfortunately, Deaf people can’t make phone calls and most are not fluent in English or Hindi to write emails. This is because of the lack of access to education in Indian Sign Language.
I asked ISLRTC if Deaf people can make video calls using Indian Sign Language. A senior staff member responded that Deaf people can email them if they have any concerns. I responded that the majority of Deaf people’s first language is ISL, not any form of written language. This is a centre that the government has funded. There is a gap between the ministries on how to provide appropriate accommodation for Deaf Indians.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare released a pamphlet on a list of requirements that every state needs to fulfil according to the PWD Act to give people with disabilities access to coronavirus-related information. It directed that “24×7 Helpline Number at State Level be set up exclusively for Divyangjan with facilities of sign language interpretation and video calling must be provided”. So far, only a few states have provided these. The Department of Social Security and Women and Child Development of Punjab is one example. They are providing a helpline for the Deaf where an interpreter accepts video calls from Deaf people. This is a good start. However, is there any training in crisis management for the interpreters? Some states may not even have any sign language interpreters. Who can Deaf people reach out to then?
If Indian Sign Language becomes the 23rd official language of India, each state would have a team of qualified, skilled interpreters ready to interpret video calls from Deaf people.
Interpreting video calls for hospitals and doctors
There has been no preparation to provide accessible services to Deaf patients in hospitals or during doctor visits. Recently, a team of Deaf leaders and interpreters decided to work together to create a community list of interpreters who are willing to volunteer their interpreting services. With the support from the National Association of the Deaf, a list of 66 interpreters was created stating the languages that they are skilled in and their phone numbers. This list has been sent out to everyone, including the health ministry, via social media. Due to this local community effort, the interpreters have been interpreting video calls between medical staff and Deaf consumers.
However, there may be some challenges. Are the doctors and nurses aware that these services are being provided? Are they aware that every Deaf person has a right to request for sign language interpreters by law? Are they trained on how to communicate with interpreters via video calls?
If Indian Sign Language becomes the 23rd official language of India, hospitals and clinics would be required to provide interpreting services for every Deaf patient.
Accessibility to news
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting created a policy last August, which required each media broadcaster to provide accessibility to the Deaf community through either subtitles or a sign language interpreter on screen. So, I was pleased to see interpreters on Doordarshan News and other channels. On Doordarshan, PM Modi’s lockdown speech had a sign language interpreter on the side. After the announcement, there were numerous complaints from the Deaf about not being able to understand the interpreter’s signing. This feedback from the Deaf community is equally important.
But in spite of the feedback, Doordarshan continues to use the same interpreter. As a result of this experience, Deaf leaders and skilled interpreters, approved by the Deaf community, have worked together to provide ‘live interpretations’ of news on their personal YouTube and Facebook accounts.
The Doordarshan incident should be a lesson for all of India’s media outlets. It is important to work with the Deaf community to screen and select skilled interpreters together. Hearing people are not qualified to decide on this.
If Indian Sign Language becomes the 23rd official language of India, all media outlets would be required to work with the Deaf community to provide qualified accessibility on the internet and on TV.
The Covid-19 pandemic shows that the Narendra Modi government should endorse Indian Sign Language as an official language of India. That will lead to positive changes in various areas such as education, family, media, access to hotlines, and public service providers. News about coronavirus shouldn’t reach us last.
The author is a Deaf activist and founder of Access Mantra Foundation. Views are personal.