Bridging the communication divide
A common Indian Sign Language for the deaf is needed now, says D S Chauhan
Myths and Facts about hearing loss

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December 2002 : Imagine this scenario - each person spells or pronounces a word differently. Ditto for the written alphabet and phonetics. Rules of grammar are thrown out of the window. To crown it all, each insists that s/he alone is right, and all others are wrong. In the resulting babble, meaning and understanding would be the first casualties. As spoken, the cacophony would be unintelligible; in the written form the jumbled letters would look like spiders' feet - incomprehensible and absurd. And the overall result? All social, cultural and commercial life would come to a standstill.

Unreal? This scenario is in fact very real among a small section of our society - the deaf.

One has only to attend an assembly of deaf people and observe their vain attempts at communicating with others. There are no standard signs for specific words. By gesticulating and making faces, the deaf must strive to express themselves without a mutually understandable language. The same signs are repeated a number of times until the meanings become clear, and the person being signed to nods his head and takes up the other end of this signathon.

Determined intervention in special institutions is important for hearing impaired children, particularly at the primary stage, to familiarize them with the written and spoken language. If they are herded into schools for normal children in the name of integration without the least familiarity with mainstream concepts of language, they are unlikely to benefit. The number of special institutions for the deaf, though, is woefully inadequate. In the entire country there are around 350 special institutions.

The facilities for training the adult deaf in vocational trades are even less. There are only three training centres for the adult deaf in the country - two run by NGOs and one by the government. Between them, the three can train no more than 300 at a time, against the need to train a minimum of 30,000. Moreover, most of the facilities available for the deaf, whether for education or training, are located in urban areas. In our villages, where hearing impaired populations are thinly spread, there are no facilities whatsoever.

These educational and training facilities are so abysmally few, mainly due to a lack of infrastructure in assistng hearing impaired persons. In the absence of a scientifically based language, the deaf cannot express themselves clearly. Few are literate, and only a tiny fraction can lip-read. Nor can they obtain interpreters; without a standard/common language, there are no qualified interpreters to provide this bridge. An Indian Sign Language, the cementing factor between the deaf and hearing people, is needed now.

To express and to be understood is the inherent and undeniable right of every human being. Without this right, people are quickly marginalized. There may be a property dispute necessitating recourse to a court of law; how does a person not knowing any language fight his case? How does a deaf patient explain his malady to a doctor? How is a deaf person to conduct social and commercial transactions?

Since the ranks of the deaf are not gathered together, the Government has moved slowly. Stray attempts by deaf activists to force the hands of the Government are easily brushed aside. Organisations of the deaf, boasting of an all India character, are happy and satisfired that there is the newsmagainze for the hearing impaired on the idiot box. They conveinently ignore the glaring disparity and differences in the signs used on this programme.

If the interests of deaf people are to be protected, India must have a common Indian Sign Language. It should be simple and scientific, which is not only for the the deaf but also for hearing people to understand and use with ease.

D S Chauhan
December 2002

Myths and Facts about Hearing Loss

  • Myth : All people with a hearing loss lack the ability to speak

    Fact : While people who were born without hearing may experience in learning to speak, people who have lost their hearing after the development of speech may have little difficulty speaking. Many persons with "prelingual" deafness learn to use their voices in speech classes.

  • Myth : All people with a hearing loss can read lips.

    Fact : Many people with hearing loss lip-read, but this is an imperfect process at best, with about 30-40% accuracy. It is rarely used in isolation from other communication methods.

  • Myth : Hearing aids can correct hearing loss

    Fact : Hearing aids may improve hearing for many people with a hearing loss, but they are not corrective devices. They simply amplify sound. If a person's hearing loss stems from profound damage to the inner ear, sounds will remain distorted even with amplification.

  • Myth : People who are deaf use one system for communicating

    Fact : People who are deaf use a variety of communication systems. Among the choices are Sign Language, signed English, finger spelling, speech-reading, cued speech, writing, and lip-reading.

This article on India Together is republished from "Success & ABILITY", India's cross-disability magazine, with permission from Ability Foundation, Chennai, India. To know more, email