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K Murali, his wife Sudha and daughter Sneha tell PANKAJA SRINIVASAN what it takes the hearing impaired to make themselves heard

Some youngsters mill around in a cramped office discussing what they should get us to drink. Their mentor Murali has the last word and they are dispatched to do the needful. These students are there to learn English, and along the way garner self confidence, assurance and most importantly, empowerment. This is no ordinary soft skill training centre. It is a very special place where the hearing impaired make themselves heard. And, providing them with a platform to do that is the director, K Murali.

“My heart breaks when I see so many kids lose out to discrimination. Such a waste ”, laments Murali — all in sign language. He is hearing impaired, as is his wife Sudha, his sister, and the young students who have scrambled to get us our drink. But, that in no way comes in the way of his articulating his anguish, indignation and frustration at the state of things. Deaf Leaders, the organization Murali started six years ago is fighting to change things. It aims to make the hearing impaired lead meaningful lives as a part of society, and not merely exist in its periphery. “A deaf child is usually left to his own device with dreadful consequences,” says Murali. He suffers isolation, low self esteem, non performance in academics and finally a complete break down of communication.

Real life heroes

Murali interrupts himself to ask us if we would like to watch a CD for deaf children. The fable of The Ant and the Kite unfolds as a narrator using sign language retells an old favourite, with the help of illustrations. Not just fairy tales, Murali has travelled the country documenting achievements of hearing impaired people who have made a difference to society. Such as K. Tushar, an architect in Mumbai, and Kajal Dhawan, a National Award winner for empowerment of persons with disabilities.

Murali and Sudha’s stories are as inspiring. They have never allowed their disability to come in the way. Murali finished school and got a diploma in tailoring. He later decided to do a B.A in English. Murali’s father is his role model. He was a tremendous source of strength and encouragement. Deaf children need that from their family, he says. His wife Sudha agrees. She is ever grateful to her uncle who took her from a small village in Karnataka to Chennai where she got an education.

Both Murali and Sudha worked in Ooty before deciding they had to do something for the hearing impaired. That is how Deaf Leaders came into being. Deaf Leaders is an acronym for Deaf Empowerment Activities For Literacy Education Accessible development, Employment, Rehabilitation & Sports.

“Did you know there is an entire channel dedicated to the deaf in Japan?” asks Murali. Doesn’t Doordarshan have something similar here, we ask. “Yes. A half hour news bulletin just once a week,” he smiles.

Don’t stereotype

Murali is brimming with ideas to help the deaf integrate better into society. “Breaking the stereotyping of deaf people, and changing the way we educate deaf children is a must”, he says. Teaching sign language is a priority, he insists. Early intervention, trained teachers, supportive parents can blur the barriers, he says. “Often parents are ashamed of their child’s disability. They insist on putting them into a ‘normal’ school where the pressure on them becomes intolerable, and they just give up in despair.”

Murali organizes workshops, seminars and counselling sessions across the country. He says the deaf can easily be brought into the fold if they are properly trained and educated. He educates the deaf on their rights. The objective of Deaf Leaders is to contribute to the better understanding of the deaf in India, and integrating them into the mainstream. Deaf Leaders undertakes publishing, encourages higher education and creates employment opportunities.

Murali feels all the organizations for the hearing impaired should come together and present a united front so that they can garner better benefits and fight their battles more successfully. He says, often thanks to ego and infighting many have lost sight of the main objectives.

“There is so much we can do. So many ideas and projects can be undertaken,” says Murali, and acknowledges some generous contributions made to the cause. But funding remains a big problem. More government support is needed, and more transparency, he says.

As we wind up, Murali leaves us with “Did you know Hitler exterminated hundreds, just because they were deaf?”

To know more visit www.deafleadersindia.org or www.indiadeafnews.org.

THE INTERPRETER

Sneha is Murali and Sudha’s daughter. A student of class ten she accompanies her parents to many conferences and seminars and is their official interpreter. Asked what it felt like to have hearing impaired parents, Sneha is matter of fact. “I don’t feel any difference. My parents have always been there for me. It was just the three of us at Ooty when I was growing up, and I remember my Dad buying me audio cassettes of nursery rhymes, and plenty of books." Sneha picked up sign language from her parents and from her other hearing impaired cousins. “When they visited us, we would jabber away in sign language. It just came naturally to me,” she says.

What is your ambition, we ask Sneha, and she says, “Don’t tell my parents, but I want to join politics!” Of course, we tell her parents that, and they smile indulgently. Like parents anywhere else in the world they say, “We want her to get good marks in her tenth. I hope she is doing that!” Sudha helped Sneha with her English lessons and Sneha says how she taught her friends sign language so that they could chat with her parents.

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