‘Sign Bilingualism is a Human Right’ Conference Seminar Hall No. 1 & 2

Location: India International Centre, Max Muellar, Delhi    Projects: Awareness Activities: Workshop


 ‘Sign Bilingualism is a Human Right’ Conference Seminar Hall No. 1 & 2

We have over 17 million deaf people in India and of which only 5% go to school. The quality of education that is provided in deaf schools is poor because the society has a hard time understanding the culture and linguistic needs of the Deaf community. With this, we decided that there was an urgent need to create awareness on ‘sign bilingualism’ especially among principals and teachers of deaf schools because they play a major role in a child’s life. Sign bilingualism is based on the idea that, as deaf children can potentially easily acquire sign language and may have difficulty in accessing spoken language, they should be given the opportunity to develop sign language. Acquisition of sign language gives deaf children a strong base to learn a second language. Within different educational settings the relative use of the two languages (sign and spoken/written language) may differ, but an essential feature is that the each language is recognized as distinct and used differently. While working towards the same goals as spoken language based approaches, sign bilingualism recognizes the need for a different classroom practice, using different means to achieve the same ends. It also recognizes the Deaf community, that group of Deaf people who see themselves as a linguistic and cultural minority group rather than a disabled group. A sign bilingual approach encourages the involvement of deaf as well as hearing people, and recognition of the culture of Deaf people (Gregory 1993 and 2005).

National Association of the deaf invited all the deaf schools in Delhi and NCR, both Government and Private. Over 30 teachers and principals participated in our conference. Shri Mukul Wasnik, Hon’ble Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment was our Chief Guest and Smt. Stuti Narain Kacker (IAS), Secretary of the Department of Disability Affairs, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment was our Guest of Honour.

Shri A.S. Narayanan welcomed our Chief Guest and the Guest of Honour and talked about the status of deaf education in India. When a deaf child is advised and forced to learn a spoken language on his own and is unable to hear and understand the language, automatically the education system produces poor educated deaf children who barely understand what they are reading, hardly able to write and converse. But, with the help of sign language, the visual mode of communication, the traditional method can be changed but for that, sign language needs to be recognized as an official language of India. Sign language should be the medium of communication to impart education to deaf children. With this, Mr. Narayanan gave the floor to Dr. Madan Vasishta, Chief Advisor to Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC).

Dr. Vasishta talked on ‘Bilingual Education’ and how sign language can be incorporated as well. A hearing child comes to school with a language that is his mother tongue that he learns through his parents. Through a fair language base, the child learns how to read, write and communicate but 99% of the deaf children who come to school have no language. He is taught words and sentences but, no understanding of those words and sentences. According to the research in America, deaf children with some residual hearing and lipreading skills can and do acquire language but most do not. After 12 years of schooling, the reading and writing level of most of the deaf children are 4.5 Grade and as for India, we are still unaware. But mastery of sign language as a first language leads to learning of spoken/written languages as a second language. The deaf child is able to integrate the visual form with a written form in his head which speeds up their learning process. Similarly, the deaf children of deaf adults who use sign language as a first language learn a lot faster and at par with their hearing peers as well through the bilingual approach. All deaf schools need to adopt this model. Indian Sign Language (ISL) provides the easiest and quickest linguistic environment for the acquisition of a first natural language for Deaf children. ISL is fully VISUAL as well as a complete language. ISL in the classroom makes information fully accessible to Deaf children, which is the 1st step in learning and English literacy development. Therefore, ISL should be the language of instruction because Deaf children do not have to struggle with structure to access content.  The less frustrated they are when they learn, the more motivated they will be to learn.

Smt. Kacker expressed the need to have a standardized Indian Sign language which can be practiced everywhere and by everyone. Also, she urged upon the organisation to give a list of deaf icons from our country because we have heard about many deaf icons from other countries but we would like to give the same platform to the deaf icons from our country.

Shri Mukul Wasnik suggested that an orientation programme on sign language and its understanding for MPs, policy makers, ministries, senior officials and other stakeholders are important and this should take place in the month of December with the full support from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Also, since ISLRTC will be completing a year of laying the foundation stone on 4thOctober, ‘Foundation Day’ should be celebrated inviting everyone and talking on sign language. Another initiative is the establishment of the Department of Disability Affairs and the work seems to be moving at a good pace. There are also plans to revise the ADIP scheme and include deaf people as well. Also, a revised draft bill of Persons with Disabilities to replace the PWD Act 1995 has been sent to all the Ministries of various states. Comments are to be expected by 30th September. We are seeing a change for the better.

Then a Q & A round took place between Dr. Vasisht and principals and teachers. It was an interesting session with teachers and principals wanted to gain more knowledge on sign language and how it is practiced in America and how to make classroom teaching better.

The second session was taken by Dr. Surinder Randhawa, Senior Consultant to ISLRTC. She talked on the practical approach of sign bilingualism. Bilingualism aims to develop proficiencies in two languages.

Sign bilingualism in Indian scenario would mean use of Indian Sign Language for communication and as medium of instruction and teaching language(s) of the majority (Hindi, English, Gujrati, Marathi etc.) as second language mainly through reading and writing. Speech can be taught to those who have the aptitude to learn it but it will not be enforced. Bilingual education is the only way for deaf children to gain equal opportunities and allowing them to become full citizens in their own right. Dr Hauser from the Rochester Institute of Technology (USA) presented that research from Neurosciences and Psycholinguistic studies has shown that there is no evidence that learning a sign language interfered with the learning of a second language (including speech). National sign languages are the mother tongues of deaf people and the only language that they acquire fully and effortlessly. WFD and EUD strongly urge stakeholders in education to take under consideration the unique needs of deaf children by supporting their sign language acquisition as well as the learning of the national (written) language. Sign language is a full language and it is not dependent on any other language. Research has shown that a deaf child gain most of the information visually but miss out on the majority of information when it is transferred either through speech or gestures. Gallaudet University has principals, PhDs, teachers who are deaf. Why not the same for our country? The Deaf community is the untapped resource of our country.

The last session was taken by Smt. Ruma Roka, Founder of Noida Deaf Society (NDS). She talked about the future of deaf adults. How to make them independent inspite of the poor education system? This is where NDS comes in. They bridge the gap between the school education and the skills for employment required by companies. The deaf students who study at NDS learn how to stand for themselves, empower oneself, more importantly, how to communicate. Every course that is taught at NDS is through Sign Language only. Courses like English, Computer Skills, Soft Skills, ISL Classes, etc. are all taught through sign language. From having only 5 students and one centre to now, 804 students and 5 centres, NDS has a vision to have a big centre with residential facility. They have 15 deaf trainers and management staff.

Shri Zorin Singha, President, National Association of the Deaf thanked everyone for taking time out and participating in our conference. He also shared how Smt. Ruma Roka had been a communication bridge for him and his family when his son had taken a fall from the top floor of his school to the basement. His sonhad lost a spleen, one kidney and multiple fractures in his skull. He said that it would have been more difficult had Smt. Roka not been there being his voice.

The teachers and principals, upon interacting with our guest speakers, were enlightened and understood, empathised what a deaf child felt. They supported the concept of sign bilingualism, moreover, they were interested to learn sign language so that they can communicate with the children better and understand better.







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