The single greatest education initiative for the hearing impaired in India nears closure in less than three years of its opening.

“If we hadn’t a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn’t we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body just as the mute do now?”

Socrates in Plato’s Cratylus

For Dashrath Jadeja, 24, moving to Delhi in 2011 to pursue a graduate degree in applied sign language studies was his gateway to a promising future. Born hearing impaired, he had only been subject to “oralism” all through his education, until he enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts in Applied Sign Language Studies (BAASLS) in Delhi. “Oralism” is a method of learning through lip reading, speech and mimicking the mouth shapes and breathing patterns of speech. “It was something that was forced upon us and is a hindrance to our natural ways of understanding,” Jadeja says, speaking with assistance from an interpreter.

He adds, “Sign language is a more efficient and natural way of learning for us. The programme has been the most promising development for the hearing impaired in India and we will surely feel cheated if they take this also away from us.”

While talking about the value of sign language, Jadeja gave an example of how all the students that he had studied with at Baroda, a few years earlier, had failed their exams. “We could not understand anything that the teacher was saying because they used ‘oralism’ techniques. When we heard about this course in Delhi, many of us decided to shift here and join the sign language programme.”

BAASLS has attracted students not only from India, but across the developing world. His classmate and friend Wu Weixing a.k.a. David, 29, from Henan province in central China had left the engineering course he was pursuing to come to India to join the same sign language programme. “When I heard about this programme in India, I immediately decided to take it up because there are hardly any centres that teach English sign language in China. Besides, it was more affordable for me to come here than go to America or the UK.” David is one of 17 international students who have come from countries like China, Mexico, Uganda, Burundi, Sudan, Myanmar and Nepal, to pursue the BAASLS. David went on to say, “If we are not able to complete the course, then all the money I have spent is totally wasted and my entire purpose of moving to India and my last two years here would amount to nothing.”

Collaboration between The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), United Kingdom in 2010 resulted in the BAASLS. IGNOU is the first centre to teach sign language in the country at the graduation level and one of the few sign language centres in South Asia.

The course and the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC), under whose aegis the course was conducted until recently, was established with much fanfare and a lot of promise for the over four million hearing impaired people in the country as well as the scores more across the developing world. But gradually over the last year or so, the promises have been forgotten. What was set to be a long-term institute and a trendsetter for higher education for the hearing impaired is now sadly stuck in the quagmire of politics and power struggle. With no new admissions for the programme, in all likelihood, the course is set to die a gradual death within just three years of its establishment.  

In the short period since its inception, more than 70 students have enrolled for the course and around 20 of them from the first batch will hopefully graduate later this year. Vishwajeet Nair, 22, from Mumbai who is set to graduate, says that the BAASLS was a completely new experience for him. “It is because of this course that I was able to get a job in Mysore.” He adds, “Why is it that there are hardly any teachers who are hearing impaired, even in schools for the deaf? It is because of lack of options for higher education for us. This course was the first step in changing that and as one of the first beneficiaries of it. I really hope it continues somehow so that million others like me can gain from it.”

Why is the course being abandoned? Professor M. Aslam, Vice-Chancellor, IGNOU, says that the BAASLS is being “taken to its logical end” and that its continuation is not part of IGNOU’s mandate. In a response to The Hindu’s queries, a letter from the VC’s office stated that, “The University has got the land on lease from Delhi Administration, but the land to be used for institutional areas has already been exhausted.  The fact is that as of now there is no land left for construction activity, including any construction for the ISLRTC.” The statement goes on to say, “IGNOU advertised twice for short-term and long-term appointments. In the interviews conducted though, nobody was found suitable.”

P.R. Ramanujam, Professor of Distance Education at IGNOU, refutes these claims. He says it is impossible to find a certified teacher for a course such as BAASLS. “IGNOU started with no internal expertise in distance education. A small team of teachers qualified in other academic backgrounds got it going and ended up creating a new discipline called ‘distance education’ in the social sciences,” he says. He adds, “We picked people who had excellent sign language skills for the ISLRTC and it has been functioning successfully for the past three years. To stop the course so abruptly makes no sense at all.”  

 With the ISLRTC discontinued in the last week of June, the faculty who were at the centre now sit at the National Centre for Disability Studies (NCDS), a sub-centre within IGNOU. The BASSLS course itself is hanging by a thread as it were. The situation at present is that the fate of the students who are already pursuing the degree is nominally stable, since both the Universities who offer the degree, IGNOU and UCLAN, have guaranteed that they will help the students complete their course and receive their degrees. IGNOU is not making any new enrolments though, signalling a clear message towards shutting down BASSLS. As Ramanujam told us, “Every year we receive applications from thousands of students to pursue this course, but we have had no choice but to turn them down.”

However, hope still lingers, despite all this confusion. Professor Ulrike Zeshan of the University of Central Lancashire, one of the initiators of the programme said in an e-mail interview, “Upon learning of IGNOU’s decision, I immediately started looking for alternatives. My institute is now close to finalising a plan for the course to be built up again.” The professor says that she has been working with the hearing impaired community here for more than a decade and is not going to give up so easily.

Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for Human Resource Development, under which ministry IGNOU functions, is also optimistic. “I would like to emphasise that the ongoing BAASLS course is unaffected by the decision to discontinue the ISLRTC,” he told The Hindu in an e-mail interview. The Minister added, “I believe that higher education centres that cater specifically to the differently abled are a must in India.”  

Meanwhile, for Jadeja, Weixing and all the other hearing impaired students at IGNOU, there is little clarity. “I want to teach sign language and English literature and work towards the higher education of other hearing impaired people in our country,” Jadeja says. He added on a despondent note, “The constant back and forth with regard to our course and the centre, I am sad to say, is truly pathetic.” 

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