Monday, October 19, 2009

Deaf community in India

At the turn of the last century, accounts of various communities in British India came into light (primarily as a part of colonial project). One such account that aroused interest especially amongst sign linguists is about the Angami Nagas. Allen (1905) in Assam District Gazetteers, Vol. IX, Naga Hills and Manipur claims that deaf-mutism amongst the Angami Nagas in the Naga Hills was eight times higher than the national average, where every second person was deaf-mute. Further interest was stimulated by Hutton’s (1921) account of the use of sign language by the deaf as well as hearing in the Angami villages, for communication between different villages speaking different languages. Although there is no means by which this claim of deaf villages may now be verified a hundred years later, Miles (1998) suggests that this may have been true, given the prevalence of Iodine deficiency disorders - often a causal factor resulting deafness - in the mountainous regions of South Asia. O’Malley (1907) reports about higher prevalence of deaf-mutism in Champaran. Similarly, Ibbetson (1883) reports the high prevalence in some hilly and mountainous districts of Punjab, and Srinivasan’s (1964) biomedical study at Bettiah, Bihar. Deaf mutuism in Guntur, Andhara Pradesh is reported due to genetic factor promoted by cultural practises (Mazumdar 1972).

In contemporary times, as well, reports claiming an exclusive deaf villages where sign language is used as a medium of communication among the villagers have occasionally been made. One such report published in 1991 by a journalist, Shivananda Kalave is about the two tribal villages, Basanavakoppa and Sullali (generally called ‘Silent Village’) in the remote forest tract in the Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka. The population of these villages is more than 500, of which 30% of the population comprises of deaf people. After reading this report, a Rotarian Dr. Desai in his campaign to eradicate deafness launched the Project Deaf India was launched from Mysore in 1999, in collaboration with the Rotary Club of Newport Balboa, District 5320, USA, and the Gallaudet University, Washington D.C. It was claimed that multiple causes - hereditary, personal hygiene, environment, nutrition, and cultural and social practices - were behind this high rate of deafness for generations of inhabitants of these villages (Source: A macro-level study has reported “they [deaf] were communicating with gesture and lip reading, a skill passed down along generations all these years” ( report).

To ascertain the facts, I visited the villages in spring 2005, along with Debra Grossman from UCLA who was making a film on Deaf community in India, and Ramakrishna, a Deaf Indian Sign Language teacher and activist. A local resident informed us that the village population is comprised of the Siddhis and the Gaurs. We found that none of the villagers were in fact deaf, except a boy and an old lady who are hard of hearing.

Our visit to the village school and other places, followed by a discussion with the teachers and the different members of the villages, led us to believe that there is no deaf community in these villages. The villagers disputed any high incidence of deafness in their villages and asserted that people were conspiring to get benefit out of it. Moreover, they had serious grievances about this characterisation, as they said that the villagers faced problems in matrimonial alliances, given the scare that there was a genetic factor responsible for deafness in their children. Our discussion with the teachers of other deaf schools and institutes in other parts of the district made it explicit that the claim was a hoax. This claim is made on the basis of my Ph.D. field trip, spring 2005. (The field report in a CD ROM is available with the author).

This is not to suggest that all such reports are false. Reports from Dadkhai -- a remote village in Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir and called by the locals as “the cursed village” -- deafness has prevailed for more than a half of century, reportedly affecting 40% of the population (ANI/Reuters 9th.July, 2001, Reference 7449/01, Tape 7320). A recent report (Hindustan Times, 9th.Feb., 2007) suggests that 24% of the village population is deaf, including newborn as well. The Central Health and Medical Education Ministry has deputed doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to identify the cause; however, little is known about the sign language that people use to communicate with each other.

The existence of such populations once again highlights the need for both a survey of the Indian deaf community and their sign language(s), as very little is known about either the people or their languages. New Linguistic Survey of India (NLSI) focuses on these issues. But we don't know where it is cornered, in which file, in which/whose office, and why.

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