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Indian Sign Language in search of inclusive gestures

September 23 is celebrated as International Sign Language Day.

Credit : Shubham Patil

Bhoomi Arekar | While the Indian Government said that it would begin standardisation of the Indian Sign Language (ISL) under the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, activists say that the ISL needs to be made official for more inclusivity and accessibility in public spaces.

Audibly and vocally disabled communities use sign languages to interact with people through hand gestures and signs. The deaf community uses Indian Sign Language (ISL), commonly referred to as Indo-Pakistani Sign Language, throughout the country. However, in India, the majority of the schools that teach sign language do not employ ISL as a teaching tool. ISL is yet to be acknowledged as an official language in India and made available to locals. Since the language is not yet standardised, it is used differently in different places and the expression of the sign language depends on the gestures of hands used by the trainer.

Anita Iyer, Founder of Ekansh Trust, an organisation working for equal access for People with Disabilities, said "Standardisation needs to be done to facilitate better standards of education for deaf students, to provide teachers with a language to teach in, to provide parents a language to learn if their child is born deaf."

Although India has a huge population of disabled citizens, sign language is still not made an official language under the Constitution. While Indian Sign Language is used widely in the country, many schools still also use American Sign Language or British Sign Language in India.

Activists say it is important to standardise ISL to also enable people from one part of the country to understand those from another part through sign language without the need for interpreters.



T Maitreyi, Head of Communication, Deaf EnAbled Foundation, said "Standardisation of ISL specifically aims towards making it accessible to everyone in the public spaces and make it a better way of teaching and communicating with the deaf community, which in turn will help create better and equal employment opportunities for the community with disability in the future. But for the language to grow and help communication, it needs to be recognised as an official language."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that there are around 6.3 million people in India who have a complete or partial hearing disability. And out of these, less than two percent are believed to have been formally trained in the use of ISL, which uses hand gestures and mouth movement for communication. 

According to the National Education Policy 2020, the teaching of ISL will be standardised across the country. Further, the National Institute of Open Learning has also planned to develop a high-quality module for Indian Sign Language to teach basic subjects to students.

Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) has developed a digital ISL dictionary that has 10,000 words across six categories. However, activists point out the need to ensure that only qualified trainers are appointed to teach ISL.

“Individuals who have passed 10th and 12th are often appointed as ISL trainers. What is their strength of vocab or understanding of academic needs? ISL trainers themselves must have some level of academic qualifications to be able to teach the language. 10,000 English words being explained with a limited sign vocab is not the same as having a 10,000-word strong sign vocab,” Iyer says.



She adds that the uniformity of sign language will bring in the growth of the language and it will lead to more employment opportunities for the deaf community.

However, while making sign language official would be a big step toward inclusivity, Iyer says, “Inclusion is a two-way street” referring to the participation of hearing people in learning sign language for communicating with the deaf.

Adding to this, Maitreyi adds, “When you want to build an inclusive India you will want a workspace with talent where people whether deaf or non-deaf will work together. So the first step is to build that communication line. So what we are trying to do is, we are teaching English to the deaf and sign language to non-deaf. When this happens, both of them try to understand each other way of life and communication it will bring them close. The main motive here is a day should come where deaf and non-deaf can communicate without interpreters.”

Founded by T K M Sandeep, DEF organisation has launched an education application teaching in sign language reaching the community in remote areas where education is scarce. They teach non-deaf people sign language to build a bridge between the deaf and non-deaf.