As part of Ranveer Singh’s new music label IncInk, the actor has recently released a sign language music video by rapper and poet Spitfire called “Vartalap” with ISL Deaf signer Hardeep Singh. The video is part of an effort to lend support to the cause of making Indian Sign Language (ISL) the 23rd official language of India. The actor also plans to sign the official petition filed by the National Association of the Deaf India. The coronavirus lockdown has been difficult for India’s Deaf community — most orders, notices, and clarifications were not accessible. Children sent home from school were unable to study because many parents didn’t know ISL. Many could not call helplines or healthcare centres. Which is why, it’s time we refocus on educating Indians on ISL and making it an official language.
But ISL should be taught only by Deaf teachers or Deaf trainers. As restrictions on India slowly begin lifting, a new issue has risen. People are saying ISL can be learnt from hearing people too. There has been a sudden growth of hearing people providing ISL lessons to other hearing people online. But this can cause a negative impact on the Indian Deaf community and those who learn ISL.
There has been a lot of controversy about whether a hearing person should be allowed to teach Indian Sign Language in India. Are hearing people qualified to teach or make ISL curriculum?
Hearing people who have been teaching ISL online are mostly sign language interpreters who were taught by Deaf trainers, special educators who learnt from their Deaf students, or friends and family of Deaf people.
It may appear okay for hearing people to teach sign language if they have the ‘skills’ to do so, but it is appalling for those in the Deaf community.
What brings the community together is our language – sign language – which is the foundation of building our identity, culture and pride. As the saying goes, “sign language is our identity and psyche.”
Deaf people are a cultural-linguistic minority. For thousands of years, they have experienced oppression from the majority group — hearing people, who have prevented majority Deaf Indians from having access to Indian Sign language in education, in their families, and in employment. Dr Tom Humphries, Professor of Deaf Studies, invented a word in his doctoral study called ‘Audism’, which means the ability to hear makes people act superior to those with hearing loss. Every Deaf person will experience a form of ‘audism’ on a daily basis. The Deaf community has been preventing audism by spreading awareness and educating the hearing population on respecting our human right to use Indian Sign Language. On top of this, we now have to struggle with hearing people who take our language and believe they are qualified to teach it to other hearing people.
Access this article in Indian Sign Language :
How ISL Course started in India
It was Sunil Sahasrabudhe, a Deaf expert and the first person to graduate with a M.Ed . (HI) degree, who explained to me the history of ISL courses in India. The course for learning ISL, approved by the Rehabilitation Council of India, began in 2001 at the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute for the Hearing Handicapped (AYJNIHH) in Mumbai with a Deaf trainer, Sibaji Panda. He taught and trained a number of Deaf trainees so that they could teach ISL to the hearing learners.
In 2003, the ISL course expanded to regional centers all over India. Unfortunately, 10 years after its inception, hearing people took control of teaching ISL, pushing the Deaf experts aside. Today, many NGOs and private businesses offer ISL courses to the public.
To date, more than 100 Deaf individuals have undergone the Teacher Training course at AYJNIHH to become certified ISL Instructors. There is an association yet to be formally established called the Indian Sign Language Teachers Association (ISLTA), where certified Deaf ISL instructors are members. Since they are Deaf and Indian Sign Language is their ‘mother tongue’, they are qualified to teach hearing people.
How did hearing people think they are qualified to teach ISL? I want to highlight three critical issues here.
Hearing Privilege is, “when hearing people view their social, cultural, and economic experiences as a norm that all Deaf people should experience. It is a privileged position; hearing people possess an undeniable advantage over Deaf persons.”
Naturally, hearing people have more auditory privilege than the Deaf community in terms of access to education, information and media channels, apart from access to many job opportunities. An example of hearing privilege is where hearing people can listen and converse on the dinner table, while the Deaf cannot. Being left out during meal times when hearing family members don’t know ISL is a daily experience for Deaf Indians.
In his keynote at a conference for sign language interpreters, Deaf Studies Professor Robert Lee said that, “As a hearing, late-second-language learner of sign language, I have been invited into the lives of Deaf people, and I could just be easily be invited out. I have no intrinsic ‘right’ to be an interpreter (or a teacher) just as no outsider can claim the right to be a member of another culture.”
It would be considered disrespectful if a native UK citizen felt qualified to teach Hindi. Likewise, it’s disrespectful for hearing people to teach ISL. Do not misunderstand the Deaf Indian community — learning ISL is a great opportunity we want you all to experience so the Deaf and hearing communities can connect. Yet, it does not give hearing people the privilege to teach ISL to others.
Tokenism refers to the, “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.”
In 2017 Spring, there was an art fair at Connaught Place, New Delhi. I happened to meet a couple of Deaf people who wanted me to join an ISL sign language class that was being taught in the park. Out of curiosity, I decided to join them. I saw a hearing person teaching ISL by using his voice as well. Next to him, there stood a Deaf person like a trophy on a shelf. This is an example of tokenism. In regards to the hearing instructor using his voice while teaching ISL, most people have the misconception that ISL can be signed ‘word to word’ just like any spoken language. No, that is not the case. ISL has its own visual-spatial grammatical structure that cannot be signed word for word following a spoken system.
These days, many companies and NGOs that are managed by hearing people are hiring Deaf people, using them as ‘tokens’ to make themselves appear respectful of Deaf cultural values and ISL. Sad to say, most Deaf Indians feel oppressed by their employers. They often try to explain to the hearing administration when they go wrong, and show them the appropriate ways to teach ISL & respect Deaf cultural values. The hearing administration often ignore the Deaf community’s input to make the workplace inclusive. Deaf employees keep working with such organisations to “survive” and earn income to support their families. A Deaf employee, who prefers to be anonymous, shared a personal experience of working for a company where a hearing person had created an ISL curriculum. During the course, the Deaf trainers were ordered to follow exactly what was written in the curriculum even though it wasn’t accurate. The Deaf trainers were not allowed to modify or add to it to improve the curriculum. The hearing person would also teach ISL using his/her voice. This means that hearing students would auditorily focus and learn from the hearing teacher instead of the Deaf trainer present in class.
When hearing trainers teach ISL incorrectly, students end up learning the incorrect grammatical structure of ISL. Studies have proved that it is more difficult for students to ‘unlearn’ the incorrect lesson. It is best students are given the opportunity to learn from Deaf trainers, who are naturally fluent in ISL, right from the beginning.
Instead of using Deaf employees as ‘tokens’, let them take the lead in teaching ISL courses for the company. It empowers them to take ownership of something that is intrinsically valuable to them — Indian Sign Language and Deaf culture.
Cultural Appropriation “happens when a “dominant culture takes things from another culture that is experiencing oppression”.
Since India passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act of 2016, there has been a campaign to encourage companies and organisations to hire people with disabilities. They also are encouraged to provide more job training to people with disabilities. There are hearing teachers employed permanently in more than 600 Deaf schools in India. Now, there are more job openings for hearing signers to become sign language interpreters. Even worse, hearing signers are appropriating deaf culture by offering lessons in ISL on social media. Does it make sense for hearing signers to apply for ISL trainer positions when they were taught by Deaf ISL experts in the first place?
“To take away a Deaf person’s power, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is unacceptable.,” said Trudy Suggs once.
Accountability means being responsible, and it begins with you. If you have desire to learn a new language such as Indian Sign Language, it is your responsibility to do your research on the following:
- Is the curriculum designed by ISL Deaf experts?
- Is the course taught by a Deaf person?
- Is the fees reasonable and does the majority of the fees go to the Deaf trainer?
- Have you tried to reach out to a local Deaf person in the community and ask where you could learn ISL? (Sometimes it is best to learn from a Deaf person who is local so that person can invite you to upcoming Deaf cultural events.)
- Can you get in touch with ISLTA for recommendations on Deaf trainers, who are ISL experts?
- Has your instructor explained to you the standard policy that hearing people cannot teach ISL?
As for Deaf experts, it is your responsibility to fight for what is right. You must be aware of the ethics of teaching ISL to a hearing person. You must educate your hearing employers on what is ethical before offering an ISL course that is managed by them. If you have any disagreements, it is your duty to report your concerns to the ISLTA.
I know that in the past year, Deaf leaders and ISL experts have tried their best to provide advice and warnings to hearing people who have unethically taught ISL. We have enough resources in this century to have Deaf experts teach ISL. There is no need to have a hearing person to teach ISL, when it is not their language to begin with.
We all want to invite you to learn our culture and language. The first step is to show respect and honor our culture and language.
There will be an announcement soon regarding a collaborative effort by ISLTA, Yunikee, and Access Mantra Foundation to offer ISL courses that are being created, trained, and approved by a team of ISL Deaf experts.
The author is a Deaf activist and founder of Access Mantra Foundation. Views are personal.