Sheikh Aslam (32), hailing from Tiruchi, has changed three jobs in the last two years that he has been in Chennai. A post-graduate in accounting, he has a hearing impairment, which he says is not as much of a deterrent as the lack of interpreters in most companies.
“The inability to communicate with peers and bosses constantly made me feel dependent. It takes some weeks to get adjusted to the interpreters, if they are there in the first place. Being one of the few disabled people in the office, I could not afford to take that much time,” he says.
Experts say that while companies are now aware of the vast human resource potential amidst the hearing impaired, the dearth of qualified sign language interpreters works against them. The lack of uniformity and standardisation in sign language is a big deterrent too.
“A sign language interpreter trained in Tamil will have difficulty working in any other State, and vice-versa,” says Saraswati Narayanaswami, director, Bala Vidyalaya. “The teachers pick up gestures from students, and it gets developed over years. Even a word like ‘mother' is represented differently in different States, even in districts,” she adds. From using ‘finger spelling', lip-syncing and total communication involving sign system with words communicated according to their order of occurrence, interpreters are expected to communicate in a way suited to people with hearing impairment.
“There might be just 20 per cent difference in the sign language of every area, but it is always better to promote the standardised language to increase opportunities,” M. Ramya, Director, Communication, Deaf Enabled Foundation, adds.
Another challenge is the pay, says Ms. Narayanaswami. While a sign language interpreter certified by the Rehabilitation Council of India gets paid just about Rs. 4,000 a month, even those in several government-aided schools, and under the Sarva Shiksha Abhigyan, get around Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 9,000.
The emphasis on teachers being adept at dealing with all kinds of disabilities, to encourage mainstreaming, also dissuades a lot of people from taking up this calling, says Ms. Narayanaswamy. The awareness, she says, has to start from homes. “Most children are born with residual hearing. It is necessary to tap that, and help them communicate before their neural plasticity diminishes affecting their learning abilities.”
“Even if a hearing impaired person lip-reads and speaks reasonably well, it is possible only on a one-to-one basis, not in the midst of several people. Sign language is certainly required wherever communication is required including police stations, courts, hospitals and public meetings,” says Jayshree Raveendran, director, Ability Foundation.
“Work is yet to begin on the Indian Sign Language Research Institute that was announced in last year's union budget,” Ms. Raveendran adds.
“Sometimes parents themselves don't understand what their children want to convey,” says S.K. Natarajan, St. Louis School for the Deaf and the Blind. Training sessions in companies, employment exchange offices and educational organisations would help spread awareness about the necessity of sign language, and also prompt people to take up such courses, says Mr. Natarajan.
“But while we get volunteers, flexibility in their working hours and professional interpretation when required is always a concern,” says Ms. Ramya.
“Society is slowly getting prepared to accept disability. We have ramps at many places, and audio facilities too. But our necessities, expressed in silence, go unheard,” writes Aslam, as he gets ready to face an interview, at the time suited to his interpreter.