Puneet (C), at the Multi Skills Centre for the Deaf, with her students
Puneet (C), at the Multi Skills Centre for the Deaf, with her students

An enthusiastic author once told me that stories are strewn everywhere. Much depends on whether we choose to narrate them or not, as, in search of the extraordinary, we sift and leave out exemplary deeds that cross our paths every day. I began looking around in earnest and was pleasantly surprised to discover the brilliant tales dotting my horizon, ready to see the light of the day.

One such story looked straight into my eyes on a bright day. I had gone to meet Puneet at her school for the deaf, to buy crafts made by her students. There she was, sitting with a group closely huddled on the floor. She greeted me with her trademark enthusiasm. As we talked, we discussed why the word ‘dumb’ accompanies the expression ‘deaf’.

Puneet’s twinkling eyes spoke before she did. “The deaf are not dumb. Why should I call it a Deaf and Dumb School? These kids are as normal as other children. They only have a language barrier and cannot understand our spoken words because they cannot hear! And, as they can’t hear, they can’t speak. This is all the world needs, to label them ‘deaf and dumb! Imagine the efforts they have to put in each day to communicate their feelings and ideas to the hearing community.” I listened, rendered somewhat dumb and speechless.

Sign language

“The deaf have their own sign language in which they communicate perfectly. It is our fault that we do not know their language. We, the ‘normal’ people, choose to remain dumb throughout our lives and mute our senses by deciding not to pick up a few expressions from their beautiful language. Vanity indeed! We are frustrated with them while they patiently toil all their lives to be understood and accepted. We are dumb, while they, are only deaf,” Puneet declared.

Suddenly, I was looking at myself and my doctorate in mockery. No one had ever taught me that when I had spent hours polishing my literary skills, a bit of effort should have also been directed towards learning the sign language that works so wonderfully for my hearing-impaired brethren. Why should they be forced to learn my speech while I made no effort to understand theirs?

Puneet’s words kept haunting me, and then something happened to drive home their import. It so happened that I was at New Delhi Railway Station, and suddenly, a young man tapped my shoulder. I turned back angrily, aghast at his audacity, when he began gesturing with his hands and fingers. I then realised he was hearing-impaired. As I looked around helplessly, a young female police officer came up to us. She gestured to him to show his ticket, held his hand and guided him towards a platform, showed him her watch and then pointed towards a train.

The youth thanked her and set off. I was relieved and ashamed at once. Relieved, for the youth had been guided so well and ashamed at having been reminded of the uselessness of my communication skills once again.

Must learn basics

On my journey back, I remembered Puneet’s words, “Learning the basics of the Indian Sign Language should be made compulsory for school children. If it is important to acquire several foreign tongues, why are we never asked to equip ourselves with sign language instead? Are we not responsible for including in our fold those who are different?”

So Puneet it is, who will be the hero of my story today.

Puneet runs a school for the hearing impaired in Jhansi, a small nondescript city of India, thriving on the fame of its valiant queen, Rani Lakshmibai. She had a soft corner for her cousin, a child with special needs, with whom she shared a divine bond and this inspired her to do something for other special-needs children, too. She started a preschool that was an instant hit with the kids. It was here that I met her for the first time, having entrusted my kid in her care.

But after a few years, Puneet closed down her school and began volunteering at a special school, where she was allowed to work with deaf students. She then learnt that India has the largest number of hearing-impaired in the world. At that particular school, she experienced the challenges these students faced. They lacked formal education and had to take exams in a language they could not hear and hence, automatically, could not speak. However, they were expected to speak and copy text without understanding.

Puneet was so troubled by this that she decided to learn sign language and overcome this communication barrier. “There are so many schools and teachers for regular kids,” she smiles, “but hardly any for the deaf. So, I realised I had to learn the language and teach them myself.” Having studied sign language, she began teaching the students basic English, science, and maths.

Skills centre

Realising that academic schools were of little use to these students who were too old to be admitted, she started a ‘Multi Skills Centre for the Deaf (MSCD)’. Skills like painting, cooking, stitching, and handicrafts are taught here, with help from her parents, extended family and friends. Some of Puneet’s friends help her mission by giving her sale counters at exhibitions and events. The MSCD has also started making meagre profits. On one of my visits, Puneet showed me the sewing machine purchased from profits made at a handicrafts stall.

She has been carefully training her more academically inclined wards, coaching them for competitive exams. She tells me that there are only 388 schools for the deaf in India. Not all deaf students can afford the accommodation and teaching fees at these hostels.

Puneet requested people to fund students’ education at centres at Bhopal, Delhi, and Indore when they surpassed her sign language proficiency and required further education. She also requested placements. Some of her students cleared competitive exams, while a few have also acquired good jobs. But there are thousands of hearing-impaired students who do not have godmothers like her; as per the 2011 Census, the total population of the hearing impaired in India is about 50 lakh. Sadly, a vast majority of parents of hearing-impaired children have also not learnt sign language. The ridicule and prejudice of the world towards those who cannot hear needs no words. The burden of our failure to connect to lakhs of hearing-impaired people should lie heavily upon our conscience.

Puneet dreams of opening a primary school for the deaf in Jhansi. But she is worried because India only has 250 certified sign language interpreters, a smattering, if one considers the huge demand. Sadly, while people are kind enough to offer funds once in a while, no one has ever volunteered to learn sign language and let their hands do the talking.

It would be wishful thinking to hope that schools make the Indian Sign Language (ISL) a mandatory subject and thereby facilitate the natural inclusion of the hearing-impaired into the hearing community. Perhaps, we, the people, will take up this responsibility on our own.

As Peter Drucker says, ‘The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said’. Those who cannot hear will perhaps never voice out our shortcomings. But clearly, it’s time we paid attention to what they have left unsaid.

The writer is Assistant Professor of English, Rani Lakshmi Bai Central Agricultural University, Jhansi. She may be reached at: Alka28jain@gmail.com

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