The Deaf see themselves as a socio-ethnic minority, with a fractured past but with a history and culture they are proud of, writes Nandini Hebbar

For the uninitiated, let’s start with the rules: It is now politically correct to describe people with pathological hearing loss as deaf and people who are culturally so as Deaf (with a big D).

Culturally Deaf people include people who are deaf, hard of hearing, and families of the deaf. Deafness is no longer a disability, it is a different human experience and Deaf people see themselves as a socio-ethnic minority, with a fractured past but with a history and culture they are proud of.

For the initiated, Big D communities and Deaf pride, have opened up spaces and avenues that open with only great difficulty, and not without a great fight, for discriminated groups. Many Deaf people and researches allude to the close-mindedness exhibited by mainstream media and education which have shown little initiative in making entertainment or information accessible for the Deaf. Captions are largely absent in movies, television shows and news broadcasts; and learning for deaf children is usually in English or a spoken regional language, which they have to learn by lip reading, a way of life that continuously makes them aware of their incongruousness with the hearing world.

Therefore their own culture makes signed languages the touchstone of Deaf activities all over the world. Different sign languages are practiced in different regions and one is completely unintelligible to users of the other as Swahili is to speakers of Samoan. “Sign language is the core and spirit of Deaf Culture, reiterates Sibaji Panda of Mumbai-based Deaf learning organisation Ishara, which promotes Deaf education in Indian Sign Language and English.

As knowledge of signed languages is mandatory to be a part of the Deaf culture, Big D art and work is often exclusive. For instance, the punch in Deaf humour lies in the visual pictures created by signed languages, Panda explains, and will not be understood by those who cannot read it. In an eloquent turning of discrimination on its head, the Deaf also often poke at the hearing and at interpreters, the way blondes and Sardarjis are victims of literal humour.

While Deaf Culture in India had its origins in exclusive programmes begun by the British in schools, the first Deaf association was formed only in the 1950s. The Deaf community comprising learning centres such as Ishara, Delhi-based The Deaf Way and NGOs such as the Coimbatore-based Deaf Leaders regularly produce magazines, organise exclusive cultural activities, and Deaf Expos.

While Deaf art remains a somewhat niche phenomenon in India, countries such as the U.S.A. have made a lot of headway. Deaf characters in Hollywood movies are played by deaf actors such as Marlee Matlin, who won the Golden Globe and an Academy award for her portrayal of a deaf teacher, Sarah Norman, in her debut film “Children of a Lesser God” (1986) and consequently appeared in other Deaf movies, and hearing sitcoms such as Seinfeld and soap operas like “Desperate Housewives”.

In India, the Deaf Kolkata-based theatre group, The Action Players (TAP), who assert themselves as a mainstream group, have been enthralling audiences with their adaptations of Bengali and English plays for over three decades. Dancer Astad Deboo, has been choreographing the Deaf for 20 years now. Deaf artistes perform to the vibrations of the music on the wooden flooring.

Deboo has also worked with the Clarke School for the Deaf, Chennai, whose student Krithika performed with him at the Deaf Way in Washington D.C., a conference that brings together about 10,000 Deaf people from 100 countries to exhibit Deaf art, strengthen bonds and further Deaf discourse.

Another defiant stand of the Deaf community is against cochlear implants and hearing aids, which they believe make deaf and hard of hearing people straddle two worlds without the benefits of either. They say that while professionals have always forced these artificial aids on them saying it is best for them, it is just one more exercise in making them feel different from the rest. What lies at the heart of Deaf culture is the same life force that holds together communities elsewhere: the desire to belong.

Some Deaf conventions

Deaf communities meet at restaurants for a ‘Signing Supper’ or for ‘Deaf Coffee’ at cafes, social events that can stretch up to long hours

Catch some Deaf movies such as Children of a Lesser God, Sweet Nothing in my Ear, What the Bleep?! Down the Rabbit Hole and MVP: Most Valuable Primate available with captions on DVD

World Deafness Day is celebrated in the last week of September every year. This year it was on September 27.

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