The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) cannot hold the prospects of the country’s hearing impaired ransom to the whims of a single individual head of institution. In a patently regressive move, the premier university has recently decided to shut down the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) from the current academic year. This, despite the growing emphasis on signing as a language to bridge the communication barrier between the deaf and the hearing. Ironically though, it was IGNOU that took the pioneering initiative to start a Bachelor of Arts degree in sign language in 2009, in collaboration with the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom. It was this programme that prompted the Union Human Resource Development (HRD) and Social Justice and Empowerment (SJE) ministries to involve IGNOU in the establishment of the ISLRTC on its campus in 2011. This was the very Centre for which a huge headline-grabbing outlay was announced in the 2010 Union budget. Beyond the fanfare, the Finance Minister’s statement raised hopes that the government was at last acting on a promise, contained in the 11th Plan document, to set up a nodal centre to standardise Indian sign language and train a large number of people in it. But suddenly, the larger objective of bringing the hearing impaired into the national mainstream seems in danger of being ignored. The factors that appear to have influenced the current deplorable move are not particularly clear. But the Vice Chancellor’s reasoning that a dual degree course was not conceived under the IGNOU Act does not stand up to scrutiny considering that the conception of new programmes and alterations to existing ones are well within the powers of the academic council. Nor is it the case that open and distance education preclude teaching and learning face-to-face.
Admissions for the sign language course have been frozen since last year and the first batch of students on the verge of completing their degree face the unsavoury prospect of being awarded a mere certificate. IGNOU’s ham-handed approach betrays the precarious situation that prevails in India as regards the welfare of people with disabilities. The SJE and HRD ministries should intervene expeditiously to ensure the resumption of academic activity at the sign language centre. They should also strive towards according sign language the status of an official language, promote education of the hearing impaired in that medium and establish appropriate interpretation services. Each one of these is consistent with the mandate of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the government has already ratified.