Thursday, October 8, 2009

Towards Empowering Indian Sign Language

The cumulative philosophical, historical, social discrimination that the Indian Deaf (the lower case ‘d’ is used for audiological deafness, and the upper case is used as a linguistic and cultural entity) community has passively resisted has resulted in the suppression of Indian Sign Language (henceforth, ISL), which has further violated their right to education through mother tongue, a violation of linguistic human rights. Consequently, linguistic violation has become a hindrance in empowering Deaf community in India.

The most important question regarding empowering the Indian Deaf community is the most appropriate way to impart education. The key political issue in relation to policies in education and beyond in India continues to be a battle, on the one hand, between signing vs. oralism, and in the other hand between ISL and other SLs viz. BSL, ASL, and Total Communication.

The educational methodologies practised so far in India are far from realising their very purpose of empowering Indian Deaf community. Oralism has been professed to ‘normalize’ deaf children by teaching them spoken-written language; along with misconceptions and ignorance of the nature of SL, it has been perceived as a threat to that ‘normalcy’ because it separates the child from the rest of the society. As a matter of truth, oralism violates right to mother tongue education, the most important linguistic human rights -- a linguistic genocide (Skutnabb-Kangas 2000).

On the other hand, ISL in particular is excluded and suppressed as a result of misconception about ISL and due to the lack of pedagogical materials and support. In lieu of ISL, implanted sign languages like ASL and BSL or Total Communication are the medium of instruction. These institutional efforts, in the name of benevolence, by altering, shifting, and consequently uprooting the language of the community is no better than oralism as it also results in a violation of linguistic human rights.

While ISL not only proves to be the only satisfactory solution to improve the quality of education for the deaf and in empowering the Indian Deaf community but also addresses the Indian Deaf community’s identity, culture, linguistic rights, and facilitates the acquisition of social and academic skills.

Of the 14 million deaf population of India (Vasishta 2001), all the members of the population do not sign or share Deaf culture due to variety of rhymes and reasons. Within the Deaf community in India, a continuum of SL use exists due to several socio-linguistic-educational factors. In the fast emerging scenario, the Indian Deaf community is the prime driving force fighting for the establishment of linguistic rights for Deaf as human rights, and ISL as national SL and for medium of deaf education.

With the establishment of institutions like Indian Sign Language Cell (ISL Cell), Mumbai, language policy formulation is carried out along the lines of the ‘Recommendations of the Commission on Sign Language’ of the World Federation of the Deaf. The development of course materials (marks the onset of the standarisation process) for teaching/learning ISL, teacher training, and linguistic research on ISL are some of the Cell’s core area of activity currently. However, such efforts both at the activists’ and the institutional effort are not free from problems as linguistics is embedded within it. The efforts towards a recognition of the linguistic human rights of the Indian Deaf people (and for greener linguistic ecology) can be further accelerated by translating problems into prospects – empowering ISL.

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