Being sensitive to special needs kids

There could be nothing more dumb than labelling any child ‘deaf and dumb’ in the same breath. Some children are hearing-impaired just as all children have some impairment or the other.

However, we tend to set aside groups of children with visual, hearing, orthopaedic and mental impairment because their approximation to the most rarefied construct of the ‘normate’ child is not as close as perhaps that of the so-called ‘able-bodied’ children. The point is not to ignore the differences but to make our educational and social spaces as inclusive as possible.

Even the physical structuring of our space shows how insensitive we can be to the needs of different groups of children even though they add as much diversity to our cultural and linguistic diversity as any other group.

Mere compassion will not do in such circumstances; such groups have suffered exclusion for centuries now. What we need to do is to focus on a possible world that would have equity and inclusion as its defining features.

If one of the most fundamental aims of nurture and education is to develop sensitivity for the other, we have indeed failed miserably. Just as we need to provide Braille and Jaws for the visually impaired, we need to provide professional signers for the hearing-impaired.

The most disturbing aspect of this discourse is that when you raise these issues with administrators and school heads among others, the standard response is: but we don’t have any ‘disabled’ child or faculty around here.

For God’s sake, you don’t have them because at no level of society, we make provisions for them and they never reach where they have every right to; like any other child, they can also contribute to our social and cultural life.

Over 5% of the world’s population (about 360 million people) have some level of hearing impairment. Many of them can recover their hearing capacity if they receive medical care at an appropriate time. Reduction of noise levels, timely treatment of chronic ear infections and hearing aids may resolve some issues for many. However, the most important thing to understand is that ‘deaf’ are not ‘dumb’ or idiots by any stretch of imagination.

They cannot speak because they cannot hear even though their speech organs may all be in place. Like all other children, the ‘deaf’ are endowed with an innate language capacity and as in the case of languages of ‘normal’ children, their sign language (SL) is also a manifestation of their innate universal grammar with as complex a lexicon and syntax as that of any other human language.

Fluid language

The SL is not just a set of gestures. Just as innate language faculty and universal grammar are features of all languages, diversity and fluidity are also an integral part of human languages including sign languages. It is not the case that there is only one SL in the world used by all deaf children.

Like, say, English spoken in so many countries, sign language also has many varieties. Thus, the British sign language (BSL) is very different from the American SL (ASL) just as American English is recognisably different from British English in terms of its sounds and lexicon. Both in turn are significantly different from the Indian SL. Like any other language in a given geographical space, sign language also has several varieties.

In addition to the common hands-based manual and non-manual (facial expressions, eye and eye-brow movements), SL includes iconic and non-iconic signs. Just as hearing people use a large number of facial expressions to convey linguistic messages (for which they could also use language), signers also use a large number of facial signs including facial expressions, forward body bending, head tilting, shoulder raising, mouthing among others.

For example, in the ASL, slight opening of the mouth with the tongue on the bottom teeth means ‘not yet’. Signers can’t use intonation to indicate questions; they may instead use non-manual markers. To ask a ‘yes-no’ question, a signer may raise her eyebrow and tilt her head forward.

That SL is as normal, grammatical and rich is shown by the fact that deaf children born to hearing parents soon develop a full-blown SL the moment they start interacting with other deaf children, even though at home they may be managing with only a set of limited gestures.

(The writer, who has retired from the University of Delhi as Professor of Linguistics, is Professor Emeritus at Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur)

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