Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Discourse on Sign Language

­­­A Discourse on Sign Language and the Rights of the Deaf C­­­­ommunity by Melissa G. Wallang 

Contrary to the popular beliefs that a language is a ‘real language’ only when it is spoken, sign language, the language of the deaf community, struggles for its status as a legitimate language. Although sign language cuts across all the geographical boundaries in the country (having regional variations), it still carries the stigma of being a language spoken by a ‘disabled’ section of the community. Moreover, since it seems to exist in every state, the concept of sign language as ‘linguistic minority’ in the country cannot be fathomed by many. It is a common assumption that sign language is an invented form of communication system and is primarily based on gestures. Comprehensive linguistic research work on Sign language began with William Stokoe in the 1960. Stokoe was an English Professor appointed to teach English to deaf students at Gallaudet University. Since he had been formally taught sign language, he was able to realise that the language his students used amongst themselves had a different linguistic pattern from what he had learnt. He was intrigued by Noam Chomsky’s presentation on Syntactic structures (1957) which proposed that the fundamental principles in the structure of languages are biologically determined in the human mind. Influenced by Chomsky, Stokoe further explored the possibility that sign language too, may naturally emerge from the brain.  His pioneering work, Sign language Structure: An outline of the Visual Communication System of the American Deaf reveals that sign language operates in ways similar to spoken language. Like spoken language, Sign Language also has linguistic rules (phonological rules) for the way in which each movement, each shape, and each movement of the hand/s can combine with one another to convey meaningful utterances visually (see Maher, 1996). His work on American Sign Language (ASL), provided evidence that sign language can be seen as a genuine language which fulfils the same functions as spoken languages. Not only does it have similar characteristic features as spoken language, it is also subjected to the same principles and constraints of Universal grammar. Sign languages since then have been recognized as natural human languages. Subsequently, the field of Sign Linguistics emerged in which several researches focused on the influence of modality on language structure. Sign language sparked a whole new perspective on how one sees and thinks of human languages.   
Attempts to study sign language in India also started around the 1970’s by Vasishta, Woodward & Wilson.  Their studies have been compiled and outlined in 4 dictionaries in book form. Since 2000, the Ramakrishna Mission in Coimbatore has documented sign language according to different semantic categories.  Sociological studies on Indian Sign Language (ISL) were also carried out by Jepson (1991a, 1991b), and Gopalakhrishnan (2002). More serious attempts include the comparative study of ISL and the Pakistani Sign language by Zeshan (2000, 2001, 2003a, 2003b and 2004) which is known as the Indo-Pakistani Sign language Grammar. Wallang (2007, 2010) have also attempted to analyse the situation of deaf education in Shillong and document the language used by the community in a Multi-media dictionary of Shillong sign language (ShSL). Sinha’s (2003, 2012) linguistic analysis of ISL gives an elaborate account of how the language works.
Sign language in India has developed from the deaf communities in urban areas as well as in rural areas (Jepson, 1991) and both may or may not share common linguistic properties.  The language of the deaf community in India needs to be understood within the framework of its status and function in society. The deaf community in India comprises of individuals who are profoundly deaf, hard of hearing and hearing children of deaf parents. It includes deaf people from different socio-cultural backgrounds and is not determined by geographical boundary. Despite the multi-lingual and multi-cultural nature of India, the common feature that binds them as members of the deaf community is their use of  sign language.
The Struggle of Sign Language
There is a need and constant demand from the deaf community for ‘access’ and the right to use their language in every sphere of their lives. The Government has to ensure these rights, starting with education.  Many international laws that exist, for instance, the United Nation Standard Rules of 1993, the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (UNESCO 1994and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities[1](CRPD) (United Nation, 2007) clearly spell out the significance of the right to language ( cited in Humphries, 2013). The CRPD (UN 2007) which is represented by a delegation from the World Deaf Federation paved the way for the struggle of sign language for recognition (Batterbury, 2012).  
Batterbury (2012) addressed pertinent issues of language justice for Deaf people whom she referred to as Sign language peoples (SLPs). She raised questions about deafness as a category; whether it is seen as a ‘disability’ or ‘language minority’. Further, she provided instances from the UK wherein the Equality Act (2010) ensured equal treatment to all who are disabled, by providing support services whenever required. Hence, such legislation on disability also encompassed the struggle for sign language to be treated as a language minority and the support of a sign bilingual education. She looked at CRPD (UN 2007) as a way of eliminating the emphasis on deafness as a disability and a means of bringing about a paradigmatic shift in the social construct about deafness— from a ‘disability’ to a ‘linguistic minority’.
The UNCRPD[2], 2007 according to Batterbury (2012) and according to Humphries (2013), included sign language in its definition of language. It also addressed sign language in the contexts of linguistic access (Article 9) freedom of expressions and opinions (Article 21) and specifically underscored the obligation of states to formally recognise sign language (Article 21b). Article 30 of the CRPD recognised sign language and the deaf culture and encouraged participation in cultural life, leisure, recreation and sports.
In India, several Acts of legislation have been passed (a few mentioned here) which target the elimination of all kinds of discrimination such as Persons with Disability Act (PWD) of 1995 and the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act of 1999. Their objectives are to empower PWDs and promote equality and full participation in the society. Based on these objectives, several provisions were made in terms of education schemes, transport facilities, provision of books, uniforms and other materials, scholarship grants, restructuring of curriculum and so on and so forth. Under these objectives, the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) has been carrying out training programs for all types of disabilities.
India[3] became one of the signatories of the UNCRPD, on the 30th of March, 2007 and it was ratified on the 18th of October, 2007. The Bill of Rights of Persons with Disabilities[4] (2012) was drafted to meet the needs of the disabled population in the country. Although sign language is mentioned in a few sections of the bill, it is unclear to what extent it is being addressed as a ‘natural language’ of the deaf community as it also appears in the context of communication as a ‘tool’ to provide necessary support services and access. At the same time the bill also states—“To ensure that education to persons who are blind, deaf or deaf-blind is delivered in the most appropriate languages and modes and means of communication for the individual” (p. 26).
The Draft Bill on the Right of Person with Disabled (DBRPWD) 2012 emphasises ‘accessibility’ to physical environment, transportation and communication. In the context of deafness, ‘accessibility’ means acquiring knowledge and information through sign language.  There is hardly any effort made by the Government of India to provide sign language interpreters in the various spheres of life.
The DBRPWD shows coherence with the UNCRPD’s position towards equal access, and equal opportunities through sign language. It emphasises the need to train teachers, and promote research and development in all areas of disability. It also stresses on using appropriate languages and modes of communication (including sign language) to gain knowledge and information. Hence, the bill acknowledges sign language not simply as a tool for communication but a language in its own right.
The definition of the term ‘deaf’ is unclear as it is only the term ‘hearing impairment’ which has been defined— “loss of 60 decibels hearing level or more in the better ear in the conversational range of frequencies”. However, these terms are used interchangeably in the document, without any indication of whether they officially recognise the deaf culture and its community or not. At present, the bill has not been placed in Parliament and protests and rallies against the Government are taking place (even before the election begins in May, 2014). An excerpt from the President[5] of the National Deaf Association talking to the press—‘We have been waiting since independence for this, some of us even longer.....we want our rights not your charity.............. and he also states there are 18 million deaf people in this country”.
Batterbury (2012) pointed out that UNCRPD could be a way of eradicating sign language from the context of disability. Therefore, we need to examine the constitutional safeguards and constitutional provisions for minority languages in India.  Can sign language come under the umbrella of minority languages?    
Article 29(1 & 2) of the Indian constitution clearly provides protection for Indian citizens to preserve their language, their script, their culture and the right to access education in their language, whether they belong to the minority or majority sections of the society.  If sign language comes under the definition of ‘language’ as defined in the CRPD, then sign language can be included as a minority language in the context of India.  However, the deaf community may like to retain their identity as ‘disabled’ as it is the only means to ensure benefits and equal access and acceptance of sign language. As Pandaripanda (2002) pointed out, tribal minority languages carry minimal function in several domains (apart from the speech communities they belong to) whereas sign language does not carry any functional role at all in terms of mainstream education, nor in any societal domain apart from its own community (such as in a deaf family, deaf schools and institutes, associations and exclusive religious gatherings). Furthermore, if sign language is recognised as a minority language, the government will have to allocate funds for development and research. The Government of India does provide funds to IITs for research in the area of machine translation system (Translation into sign language); but this is not visible to the majority section of the deaf community. A question was put forth to the National Deaf Association in this regard and the deaf representatives were not even aware of the possibility of having access to information through a machine translation system.
The field of Linguistics in the 19th century paid no attention to sign language but was more interested in the historical development of ancient languages like Sanskrit and Greek, with emphasis on sound change (Deuchar, 1984). Deuchar also gave an account on the developments of linguistic research in British Sign language (BSL) in the 1970’s that have had a positive effect not only on the deaf community, but also on the formulation of effective policy decisions in deaf education. Such major contributions have an indirect and positive impact on the status of sign language.
 Deaf education in India is disconnected from and hardly based on linguistic research on sign language. Wide gaps continue to exist between pedagogical practices in deaf education, linguistic research and policy decision makers. In addition to one’s ability to use sign language as a communication tool, one has to genuinely understand how sign language works in order to effectively teach Deaf children. Although the stigmatization of deafness as a disability may be an advantage to the deaf community, it also undercuts the argument that their use of sign language exclusively defines them as a ‘linguistic’ entity.
 Policy statements are the only means through which the deaf community can have equal access into mainstream community and empowerment can take place. Although sign language may be recognised as equal to any spoken language, it still needs to operate and function in several domains in society in order to act as a support system or machinery that will manufacture its own growth and sustenance.

We can no longer see sign language as simply an assistive tool to support children having hearing loss. We need to accept it as a legitimate language, and the Government must ensure justice to the deaf community by promoting its language.  Humphries (2013) is of the opinion that the international laws such as the Standard Rules, etc are not legally binding, but they are moral imperatives for States to ensure actual implementation. Pattern and Kymlicka (2003 in Batterbury, 2013) also note that “It is doubtful that internal law will ever be able to do more than specify the most minimal standard” (p.34). Recognising sign language as a ‘linguistic minority’ of the deaf community requires the implementation of a bilingual education programme. Consequently, the Government, as per its mandate in the Constitution will have to ensure allocation of funds for the development and protection of sign language. Attempts have been made by the Government of India with the launch of an Indian Institute of Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) in the year 2012. Unfortunately, to the disappointment of many and particularly the deaf community from the academic session 2013 to 2014, ISLTRC has been announced for its closure. The Government is considering opening an independent institute again in the near future.
The neglect of sign language in education continues to have major repercussions on the lives of deaf people. A deaf child goes through many frustrations while trying to learn in classroom situations where teachers teach through speech. It must infuriate him to know that every hearing child has the liberty to learn in his own mother tongue and then, gradually master English, the language of ‘power’ and ‘prestige’. This blatant neglect of ISL in most spheres in their lives has adversely affected their academic achievement and undermined not only their right to education and work, but also their right to life and personal liberty. This negligence of ISL has led to the continued increase in deaf illiteracy and subsequent lack of employment. Until more educational institutions and vocational training centres have interpreters of sign language in the classrooms the socio-economic condition of the Deaf will remain the same or worsen. This change is possible only if sign language is recognised by the government and treated as a natural language having equal status as any minor spoken language in the country.  


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Melissa G. Wallang is faculty at the Centre for Linguistics, JNU.


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