A Discourse on Sign Language

Discourse on Sign Language and the Rights of the Deaf C­­­­ommunity by 
Melissa G. Wallang 
to the popular beliefs that a language is a ‘real language’ only when it is
spoken, sign language, the language of the deaf community, struggles for its
status as a legitimate language. Although sign language cuts across all the geographical
boundaries in the country (having regional variations), it still carries the
stigma of being a language spoken by a ‘disabled’ section of the community. Moreover,
since it seems to exist in every state, the concept of sign language as
‘linguistic minority’ in the country cannot be fathomed by many. It is a common
assumption that sign language is an invented form of communication system and is
primarily based on gestures. Comprehensive linguistic research work on Sign
language began with William Stokoe in the 1960. Stokoe was an English Professor
appointed to teach English to deaf students at Gallaudet University. Since he
had been formally taught sign language, he was able to realise that the
language his students used amongst themselves had a different linguistic
pattern from what he had learnt. He was intrigued by Noam Chomsky’s presentation
on Syntactic structures (1957) which proposed
that the fundamental principles in the structure of languages are biologically
determined in the human mind. Influenced by Chomsky, Stokoe further explored the
possibility that sign language too, may naturally emerge from the brain.  His pioneering work, Sign language Structure: An outline of the Visual Communication System
of the American Deaf
reveals that sign language operates in ways similar to
spoken language. Like spoken language, Sign Language also has linguistic rules
(phonological rules) for the way in which each movement, each shape, and each
movement of the hand/s can combine with one another to convey meaningful
utterances visually (see Maher, 1996). His work on American Sign Language (ASL),
provided evidence that sign language can be seen as a genuine language which fulfils
the same functions as spoken languages. Not only does it have similar
characteristic features as spoken language, it is also subjected to the same principles
and constraints of Universal grammar. Sign languages since then have been recognized
as natural human languages. Subsequently, the field of Sign Linguistics emerged
in which several researches focused on the influence of modality on language
structure. Sign language sparked a whole new perspective on how one sees and
thinks of human languages.   
to study sign language in India also started around the 1970’s by Vasishta,
Woodward & Wilson.  Their studies
have been compiled and outlined in 4 dictionaries in book form. Since 2000, the
Ramakrishna Mission in Coimbatore has documented sign language according to different
semantic categories.  Sociological studies
on Indian Sign Language (ISL) were also carried out by Jepson (1991a, 1991b),
and Gopalakhrishnan (2002). More serious attempts include the comparative study
of ISL and the Pakistani Sign language by Zeshan (2000, 2001, 2003a, 2003b and
2004) which is known as the Indo-Pakistani Sign language Grammar. Wallang (2007,
2010) have also attempted to analyse the situation of deaf education in
Shillong and document the language used by the community in a Multi-media
dictionary of Shillong sign language (ShSL). Sinha’s (2003, 2012) linguistic
analysis of ISL gives an elaborate account of how the language works.
Sign language in India has developed from the deaf
communities in urban areas as well as in rural areas (Jepson, 1991) and both
may or may not share common linguistic properties
.  The language of the deaf community in India
needs to be understood within the framework of its status and function in society. The deaf
community in India comprises of individuals who are profoundly deaf, hard of
hearing and hearing children of deaf parents. It includes deaf people from different socio-cultural
backgrounds and is not
determined by geographical boundary. Despite the
multi-lingual and multi-cultural nature of India, t
he common feature that binds them as members of the deaf
community is their use of  sign language.
The Struggle of Sign Language
is a need and constant demand from the deaf community for ‘access’ and the
right to use their language in every sphere of their lives. The Government has
to ensure these rights, starting with education.  Many international laws that exist, for
instance, the United Nation Standard
Rules of 1993, the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special
Needs Education
(UNESCO 1994and the UN
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
[1](CRPD) (United Nation, 2007) clearly spell out the significance of the
right to language ( cited in Humphries, et.al 2013). The CRPD (UN 2007) which
is represented by a delegation from the World Deaf Federation paved the way for
the struggle of sign language for recognition (Batterbury, 2012).  
(2012) addressed pertinent issues of language justice for Deaf people whom she
referred to as Sign language peoples (SLPs). She raised questions about
deafness as a category; whether it is seen as a ‘disability’ or ‘language minority’.
Further, she provided instances from the UK wherein the Equality Act (2010)
ensured equal treatment to all who are disabled, by providing support services
whenever required. Hence, such legislation on disability also encompassed the struggle for sign language to be treated as a
language minority and the support of a sign bilingual education. She looked at
CRPD (UN 2007) as a way of eliminating the emphasis on deafness as a disability
and a means of bringing about a paradigmatic shift in the social construct
about deafness— from a ‘disability’ to a ‘linguistic minority’.
2007 according to Batterbury (2012) and according to Humphries et.al (2013),
included sign language in its definition of language. It also addressed sign
language in the contexts of linguistic access (Article 9) freedom of
expressions and opinions (Article 21) and specifically underscored the
obligation of states to formally recognise sign language (Article 21b). Article
30 of the CRPD recognised sign language and the deaf culture and encouraged
participation in cultural life, leisure, recreation and sports.
India, several Acts of legislation have been passed (a few mentioned here)
which target the elimination of all kinds of discrimination such as Persons with Disability Act (PWD) of
1995 and the National Trust for Welfare
of Persons with Autism
, Cerebral
Palsy, Mental Retardation
and Multiple
Disabilities Act
of 1999. Their objectives are to empower PWDs and promote
equality and full participation in the society. Based on these objectives,
several provisions were made in terms of education schemes, transport
facilities, provision of books, uniforms and other materials, scholarship
grants, restructuring of curriculum and so on and so forth. Under these
objectives, the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) has been carrying out
training programs for all types of disabilities.
India[3] became one of the signatories of the UNCRPD,
on the 30th of March, 2007 and it was ratified on the 18th
of October, 2007. The Bill of Rights of
Persons with Disabilities
(2012) was drafted to meet the needs of the disabled population in the country.
Although sign language is mentioned in a few sections of the bill, it is unclear
to what extent it is being addressed as a ‘natural language’ of the deaf community
as it also appears in the context of communication as a ‘tool’ to provide
necessary support services and access. At the same time the bill also states—“To
ensure that education to persons who are blind, deaf or deaf-blind is delivered
in the most appropriate languages and modes and means of communication for the
individual” (p. 26).
Draft Bill on the Right of Person with Disabled (DBRPWD) 2012 emphasises
‘accessibility’ to physical environment, transportation and communication. In
the context of deafness, ‘accessibility’ means acquiring knowledge and
information through sign language.  There
is hardly any effort made by the Government of India to provide sign language
interpreters in the various spheres of life.
DBRPWD shows coherence with the UNCRPD’s position towards equal access, and
equal opportunities through sign language. It emphasises the need to train
teachers, and promote research and development in all areas of disability. It
also stresses on using appropriate languages and modes of communication
(including sign language) to gain knowledge and information. Hence, the bill
acknowledges sign language not simply as a tool for communication but a
language in its own right.
definition of the term ‘deaf’ is unclear as it is only the term ‘hearing impairment’
which has been defined— “loss of 60
decibels hearing level or more in the better ear in the conversational range of
However, these terms are used interchangeably in the
document, without any indication of whether they officially recognise the deaf
culture and its community or not. At present, the bill has not been placed in
Parliament and protests and rallies against the Government are taking place (even
before the election begins in May, 2014). An excerpt from the President[5] of
the National Deaf Association talking to the press—‘We have been waiting since independence for this, some of us even
longer…..we want our rights not your charity………….. and he also states
there are 18 million deaf people in this country”
(2012) pointed out that UNCRPD could be a way of eradicating sign language from
the context of disability. Therefore, we need to examine the constitutional
safeguards and constitutional provisions for minority languages in India.  Can sign language come under the umbrella of minority languages?    
29(1 & 2) of the Indian constitution clearly provides protection for Indian
citizens to preserve their language, their script, their culture and the right
to access education in their language, whether they belong to the minority or
majority sections of the society.  If
sign language comes under the definition of ‘language’ as defined in the CRPD,
then sign language can be included as a minority language in the context of India.  However, the deaf community may like to
retain their identity as ‘disabled’ as it is the only means to ensure benefits
and equal access and acceptance of sign language. As Pandaripanda (2002)
pointed out, tribal minority languages carry minimal function in several
domains (apart from the speech communities they belong to) whereas sign
language does not carry any functional role at all in terms of mainstream
education, nor in any societal domain apart from its own community (such as in
a deaf family, deaf schools and institutes, associations and exclusive
religious gatherings). Furthermore, if sign language is recognised as a
minority language, the government will have to allocate funds for development
and research. The Government of India does provide funds to IITs for research
in the area of machine translation system (Translation into sign language); but
this is not visible to the majority section of the deaf community. A question was
put forth to the National Deaf Association in this regard and the deaf
representatives were not even aware of the possibility of having access to
information through a machine translation system.
The field of Linguistics in the
19th century paid no attention to sign language but was more interested in the
historical development of ancient languages like Sanskrit and Greek, with
emphasis on sound change (Deuchar, 1984). Deuchar also gave an account on the
developments of linguistic research in British Sign language (BSL) in the
1970’s that have had a positive effect not only on the deaf community, but also
on the formulation of effective policy decisions in deaf education. Such major
contributions have an indirect and positive impact on the status of sign
 Deaf education in India is disconnected from
and hardly based on linguistic research on sign language. Wide gaps continue to
exist between pedagogical practices in deaf education, linguistic research and
policy decision makers. In addition to one’s ability to use sign language as a
communication tool, one has to genuinely understand how sign language works in
order to effectively teach Deaf children. Although the stigmatization of
deafness as a disability may be an advantage to the deaf community, it also
undercuts the argument that their use of sign language exclusively defines them
as a ‘linguistic’ entity.
 Policy statements are the only means through
which the deaf community can have equal access into mainstream community and
empowerment can take place. Although sign language may be recognised as equal
to any spoken language, it still needs to operate and function in several
domains in society in order to act as a support system or machinery that will
manufacture its own growth and sustenance.
can no longer see sign language as simply an assistive tool to support children
having hearing loss. We need to accept it as a legitimate language, and the Government
must ensure justice to the deaf community by promoting its language.  Humphries et.al (2013) is of the opinion that
the international laws such as the Standard Rules, etc are not legally binding,
but they are moral imperatives for States to ensure actual implementation.
Pattern and Kymlicka (2003 in Batterbury, 2013) also note that “It is doubtful that internal law will ever
be able to do more than specify the most minimal standard” (p.
34). Recognising
sign language as a ‘linguistic minority’ of the deaf community requires the
implementation of a bilingual education programme. Consequently, the
Government, as per its mandate in the Constitution will have to ensure
allocation of funds for the development and protection of sign language. Attempts
have been made by the Government of India with the launch of an Indian
Institute of Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) in the year
2012. Unfortunately, to the disappointment of many and particularly the deaf
community from the academic session 2013 to 2014, ISLTRC has been announced for
its closure
. The
Government is considering opening an independent institute again in the near
neglect of sign language in education continues to have major repercussions on
the lives of deaf people. A deaf child goes through many frustrations while
trying to learn in classroom situations where teachers teach through speech. It
must infuriate him to know that every hearing child has the liberty to learn in
his own mother tongue and then, gradually master English, the language of
‘power’ and ‘prestige’. This blatant neglect of ISL in most spheres in their
lives has adversely affected their academic achievement and undermined not only
their right to education and work, but also their right to life and personal
liberty. This negligence of ISL has led to the continued increase in deaf
illiteracy and subsequent lack of employment. Until more educational
institutions and vocational training centres have interpreters of sign language
in the classrooms the socio-economic condition of the Deaf will remain the same
or worsen. This change is possible only if sign language is recognised by the
government and treated as a natural language having equal status as any minor spoken
language in the country.  

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Melissa G.
Wallang is faculty at the Centre for Linguistics, JNU.

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