September 23rd marked the International Day of Sign Language, a day India got together to celebrate the power of gestures and communication and to recognize deafness.
Amidst numerous news alerts on this issue, one particular article caught my attention. A few regional news channels would collaborate with an organization to broadcast news along with an inset of sign language for a week.
My goodness, I thought to myself – One whole week, isn’t that something?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure their heart is in the right place and their intentions noble. But this is where I begin to get a little suspicious. We now have multiple days assigned to celebrate multiple issues. Some are celebrated with much grandeur and others silently pass us by. These days which were meant to be a reminder to take off our rose-tinted glasses and think about what we ignore the rest of the year have now simply become “special days” in the calendar.
This year however the dialogue surrounding sign language has matured significantly. Earlier in 2018, the Indian Sign Language Research & Training Centre (ISLRTC) released a 3000-word Indian Sign Language dictionary. Civil Society has also been quite vigorous and active on this matter with one reading about petitions, protests and appeals almost every day.
I get reminded of an incident when I worked with a national disability advocacy organization in Delhi. It was January 2014 and there was a huge momentum building up advocating for the inclusion of sign language during the Republic Day telecast. There were protests held every day leading up to D-day and finally a meeting was called for with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Bureaucrats and civil society representatives sat across each other and tried to reason each other out. A thundering response from a senior representative of the government stayed with me for quite a while. This individual while trying to reason with us why it didn’t make sense to have a sign language inset said “For a few handful people, we can’t hamper the entertainment value of millions of others watching the parade” – referring to the inset that would take up screen space.
That is the moment when I thought to myself – this battle is going to be long and it is not going to be easy.
This was before the passage of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. This was before the Accessible India Campaign. This was before the Indian Sign Language Research & Training Centre.
But when I take a hard look at things – what has changed? There may be campaigns, legislations, petitions and protests. But as long as attitudes remain oblivious none of that will matter. It is indeed time to take a very very hard look at things and beyond.
Disability and issues related to human rights need to be brought to the forefront so that they are not just on our minds on "special days" when we come together to front a façade. But also to remind ourselves that there are still many who are left behind every single day, fighting these battles of daily life on their own - over and over again.
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