THE TERM ‘hearing and speech impaired’ is a pejorative for Sachin Singh. “I am deaf and I have my own language. From where I stand, those who cannot understand my language suffer an impairment,” he gesticulates, as his interpreter Kushboo Soni spells it out through the spoken word.
Kushboo, who is proficient in the language of her deaf parents, and Sachin are part of a dozen-member team that is currently working on a central government project for documenting the first-of-its-kind Indian Sign Language (ISL) dictionary, which is expected to be released in March. Under the ambitious project, commissioned by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, so far over 6,000 English and Hindi words — of everyday usage, legal, medical, technical and academic terms — have been compiled in sign languages specific to the Indian context.
The team from the autonomous Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) is working on graphic representations of not only the widely used country-specific signs but also the many regional variations. As an example, Kushboo points out how in the well-documented American sign language, one indicates a girl by sliding the tip of the thumb along the cheek down to the chin since women would wear bonnets. Andesha Mangla, an assistant professor at ISLRTC, says, “In India, depending on the region it is shown either by bringing the index finger to the centre of the forehead or side of the nose to indicate bindi or nose-ring.”
It was in 1980, that author Madan Vasishta established that the Indian sign language was a language in its own right. He compiled a few hundred sign languages used in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru in his book ‘An Introduction to Indian Sign Languages’. Two decades later, the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University collated signs from across 42 places in the country and released a sign dictionary for 1,600 words. Experts have shown how in a diverse country like India, not only does sign language vary as per region, certain villages such as those in the Naga hills and Alipur in Karnataka, with a history of high incidence of congenital deafness, have their own variant of rural sign languages.
The ISLRTC will compile its glossary of 6,000 words by borrowing from the existing scholarship as well from its own research. The dictionary will serve as a record of the common parlance of the 50 lakh deaf and 20 lakh mute people (Census 2011) across the country.
ISLRTC’s Dr Abhishek Shrivastav, who is working on the signs for legal words, says, “Like every language, sign language too has its own phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. The dictionary, once made widely available, will bridge the communication gap between the deaf and the hearing.”
Once the compilation process is over, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment plans to call for a national conference so that experts from the field can further improve on it. The dictionary is also a corollary to the ministry’s Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2016, which was the only legislation to be passed during the last session of the Parliament. The Act, under sections 16 and 17, requires the government to ensure, in all manner possible, an inclusive education for all children with disabilities.
A recent survey by the ministry has found that there are merely 300 sign language interpreters in the entire country. According to a ministry official, this is the main reason why, of all persons with disabilities, literacy rate is the lowest when it comes to those who can’t hear.
“Presently, there are roughly 15 lakh deaf children in the school-going age; very few are actually able to get an education. This dictionary will be widely circulated in all schools, put up online with videos and eventually we want to have it in all regional languages. Our aim is that each and every school should have at least one teacher who knows the sign language,” says the official.
Madan Vasishta has documented how while only five per cent of the total deaf children go to school, just 0.5 per cent receive education in sign language which is the only way they can comprehend.
Back in the ISLRTC cell, researchers Rahul Garg and Islam Ul Haque, both deaf themselves, have identified 44 hand-shapes used in India under which each of the 6,000 words would be classified in the dictionary. Efforts are still on to come up with signs for abstract words. As researchers ponder over how to depict the befuddling ‘trigonometry’, Kushboo is quick to suggest that it should be broken into three different signs to indicate ‘mathematics relating to triangles’. For most of the researchers, many of whom are either deaf themselves or are siblings/ children of deaf persons, the final product would be more than just a dictionary. As Sachin puts it, through gestures that Kushboo interprets, it would an acknowledgement of their linguistic identity.