South Asia, of which India’s deaf community is a part, comprises just a little over one-fourth of the world’s entire deaf population, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO). In this region of contrasts, high prevalence of disabling hearing loss in children and adults alike doesn’t correlate to services and rights.
What is it like to be a part of the world’s largest deaf community? Confusing, but hopeful. An overview of India’s deaf community involves the long-standing struggle for recognition, dignity, and sign language.
The exact figure for India’s deaf community is unknown. India is the largest of the eight countries that make up South Asia. This would imply the largest deaf population as well, but statistics are unclear. The National Association of the Deaf (affiliated with the World Federation of the Deaf) puts the number of Indians affected with hearing loss at 18 million. That’s modest. According to an article published in the Indian Journal of Otology, the number is supposed to be somewhere in the range of 63 million.
These widely differing statistics are a result of the basic definitions of deafness and hearing loss in India. The same person who’s classified by WHO as “suffering from severe hearing impairment” was until recently not even considered “hearing handicapped” in India. As of today, only Indians with a minimum degree of 40 percent disability qualify. Only with a loss above the threshold of 60dB do as well.
Last year, when the pandemic broke out, mass neglect of the deaf community in India was self-evident. Help lines and news alerts remained inaccessible. Video calls with doctors impossible. No provisions were made in COVID wards for people with hearing loss. When the lockdown was announced, deaf children were left uninformed. Even now they continue to miss out on online classes.
This is not to say that there have been no efforts. The government launched the National Programme for Prevention and Control of Deafness in January 2007. But the going is slow. The reality is that in a country of 1.38 billion people, the estimated number of Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) specialists is 7,000. Otologists make up a mere 2,000. And the number of certified sign language interpreters? Here’s one statistic that will truly surprise: 250 odd individuals.
Despite its significant population of people with auditory loss, India lacks accessibility and sign language. This makes India stand out. In terms of accessibility, the situation is a far cry from where it should be. It’s the very basics that we are left wanting – essentials such as announcements during daily commutes, captions on TV, or simple instructions and signage to lead every day life in public spaces.
The challenges multiply because there is no official sign language in place either. Or rather, India does have a well-developed sign language and many local variants, but no recognition whatsoever.
“Despite its significant population of people with auditory loss, India lacks accessibility and sign language.”
The November 1920 edition of The Silent Worker – one of the earliest newspapers to be published exclusively for the deaf community – featured an interesting cover story that sheds light on the situation. It talks of the appalling apathy that ruled the times:
“More than 90 percent of the general population are quite ignorant that the deaf (who are called ‘dumb’) can be given speech and the blind may be able to read and write,” it reports.
The article goes on to say that there are 10 schools for the deaf in India. Incredibly, 101 years on, India now has 400. The social stigma attached to using sign language in public – and hence admitting to deafness – still runs strong.
Read more: 10 Misconceptions about Hearing Loss
Madan Vasishta is a Gallaudet-educated Indian deaf writer and scholar known for his poignant memoir Deaf in Delhi based on his growing up years. He has personally documented some beautiful truths about India’s deaf community that he discovered while doing research. When a hearing person from a northern state completely failed to communicate with a south Indian, two deaf people from the most far-flung corners of the country could understand each other more or less perfectly.
Additionally, Indian sign language has gained leverage in the recent years. The first Indian sign language dictionary was finally published and launched in early 2018. The efforts to earn it official status, however, will have to continue.
On the brighter side, there are solutions to help India’s deaf community cope with challenges that are to an extent shared by the global deaf community at large.
Given how common hearing loss is around the world, it’s still incredible how overwhelming it can seem when experienced firsthand. While dealing with it by yourself can be a challenge, it is equally important that your nearest and dearest ones understand and empathize.
To begin with, it’s a great idea to first educate yourself on the basics of hearing loss and take an online hearing test. Why does hearing loss happen? What are the signs? What kind and what degree of it? Once you have the answers to these questions, things become easier. You can then go on to learn sign language and also become more aware – and make others aware – of accessibility issues and available help.
Read more: Hearing loss awareness
Besides being home to the world’s largest hearing loss community, India also happens to be among the noisiest countries on Earth. Honking, for instance, is so common that it would seem to be a favorite pastime of every commuter. Exposure to the 90-112 dB of shrill horns is just one of those things that can start an irreversible course to damaged hearing.
Read more: This is how loud a typical day is
To protect your ears from such unhealthy exposure to noise, you could wear earplugs or earmuffs. If you want something more sophisticated, which cancels noise while allowing natural hearing, Phonak’s Serenity Choice (available in India) has options for high-end earplugs.
There are also a number of lifestyle changes that can not only prevent but save you from further hearing loss.
Thankfully, the one thing that has definitely changed since that Silent Worker article is technology. Today we have medical science’s best hearing solutions and treatments available in India.
While a developing country is bound to be limited by the cost factor – especially for cochlear implant surgeries, which remain economically unfeasible for most of the population – there are a variety of excellent hearing aids that vastly change our options. Now it is possible to tune out of whistling sounds on the phone and have automatic volume and feedback control in noisy environments. The array of choices means you no longer need to worry about hiding them either.
HLM’s publication’s manager Zico Fernandes, who has single-sided hearing loss, recently visited an audiologist in Mumbai, India.
“It’s not tough to find an audiologist,” he says. “It’s just sometimes tough to accept that you’re hard of hearing or that you need something to hear better. It’s not commonly accepted here in India. They’ll get reading glasses if they can’t see well, but there needs to be more awareness that they can get a device to help them hear better as well.”
Technology has solved our hearing problems to a large extent. It has also enabled us to share our experiences. It is always a good idea to reach out to well-developed online communities such as Hearing Like Me. The huge user base makes it possible to swap tips and tales with the global hearing-impaired community and seek help on how to cope.
Read more: Finding community in the deaf world
In the dismal scenario of 250 sign language interpreters, public initiatives that save the day. There are many nonprofits and grassroots organizations that support people with hearing loss not only in finding employment, but also in building communities.
There are a few inspiring examples, like Enable India, a Bengaluru-based non-governmental organization (NGO). It has a FingerChats initiative that organizes sign language workshops and courses while also training volunteers. Access Mantra, a Delhi-based NGO, maintains an extensive Deaf Information Network. Gujarat’s Mook Badhir Mandal is another institution that counsels, facilitates employment, and helps integrate talented deaf individuals in mainstream society. Deaf EnAbled Foundation (DEF) imparts job-oriented vocational training while focusing on women’s issues.
The All India Sports Council of the Deaf, a government-affiliated body, deserves special mention for training sports enthusiasts with hearing loss for Deaflympics. On the more creative end, there is RH Films, run by two deaf filmmakers dedicated to making films for deaf audiences. They choose to not caption their films in English and still have shows to full capacity. Then there is India’s first deaf-run lifestyle brand Atulyakala, which empowers people with hearing loss and nurtures their creativity. Restaurants and café chains such as Echoes and La Gravitea bring together creativity and empowerment in a shared community space.