A lost language: How the deaf are navigating a masked world

Hindustan Times | By
Oct 31, 2020 10:56 AM IST

Overnight, their ability to communicate freely with the world has vanished. As most communities and workplaces lag in adjusting, see how some deaf individuals are innovating so they can carry on.

What would your world be like if your corrective lenses were suddenly taken from you? That’s the sort of reality deaf people have been forced into in the pandemic. Overnight, masks have erased their ability to communicate freely with the world.


Deepak Sehrawat, a deaf teacher for the deaf working with an NGO, has been trying to ease things a bit by teaching his colleagues to sign. That’s the only way he can be part of conversations and meetings and he’s glad his colleagues are willing to learn.

Many are not faring as well. Rishi (last name withheld on request), a 23-year-old IT engineer with an NGO, says what hurts most is the “daily discrimination” from people in his workplace. “In the pandemic, when things are difficult all around, the standard response from colleagues to any query is, ‘We’ll tell you later’. And then, at the end of a two-hour meeting, you’re given a two-line summary. I feel excluded,” he says. “It produces anxiety and lowers one’s self-esteem.”

The pandemic has created new situations for us that are challenging as it is, adds Sehrawat, the teacher with the Haryana-based Welfare Society for Persons with Speech and Hearing Impairment (HWSPSHI) in Gurugram. “Trying to get about in society in such conditions is causing so much additional anxiety for deaf people, that we’ve added regular counselling of students to our schedule. Another challenge is getting parents of deaf kids to learn sign language.”

It doesn’t help that helplines are largely off-limits because most are phone-based. Or that offline counselling over the next year or so will involve double the cost, for an interpreter as well as a counsellor. “We hope to have deaf counsellors in India, just like they do in the US, UK and other countries. There is a huge need,” says Sapan Jain, Indian Sign Language coordinator with HWSPSHI. “But currently, less than 1% of deaf Indians finish college.”

The need is certainly significant. India has about 5 million hearing-impaired people, according to the 2011 Census.

Aman (who goes by only one name), a deaf IT worker with another NGO, recommends that companies that have deaf employees use video-relay service apps such as SignAble that translate audio to sign language, so the deaf can participate as equals.

“Instead of timely assistance, many are living with the fear that they will be the first to be laid off, because it is difficult to communicate with them. Living in fear diminishes people,” says Pallavi Kulshreshtha, project officer at HWSPSHI. “Imagine how that feels.”

Even with the discrimination, for instance, Rishi considers himself privileged to have a full-time job. An estimated 95% of deaf children never make it to school.


    Paramita Ghosh has been working as a journalist for over 20 years and writes socio-political and culture features. She works in the Weekend section as a senior assistant editor and has reported from Vienna, Jaffna and Singapore.

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