A sign of our times | Sunday Observer

A sign of our times

What if you have to live without hearing anything ? The melody of a flute; the rustle of leaves; the roar of traffic; the laughter of children; the meow of a cat; the non-stop talking of your son and daughter; the flow of water in a brook and the countless other sounds that we come across every day. Hearing is the second most important sense we have after sight. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that blind people have a very acute sense of hearing to compensate for their loss of sight.

Yet, loss of hearing or deafness is an everyday fact of life for more than 72 million people worldwide. More than 80% of them live in developing countries. In Sri Lanka, more than 70,000 people suffer from complete or partial deafness. Still, they have to communicate among themselves and with others. In the absence of speech, they have to rely on a sign language.

Sign languages are as old as humanity. In fact, this is how babies still communicate before they develop the power of speech. This shows that sign communication is perhaps in our genes, a holdover from the days when early humans or their ancestors communicated using gestures, before speech evolved. A recent study also showed that we share this trait with all primates, who make hand gestures to communicate with each other.

Ape and human infants at comparable stages of development use similar gestures, such as, pointing or lifting their arms to be picked up, new research suggests. Around a year old chimp, bonobo and human babies rely mainly on gestures, and gradually develop symbolic language. Moreover, chimpanzees and gorillas can be taught to communicate in advanced sign language. A famous example was Koko the Gorilla who mastered complex sign language.

Today, there are more than 300 different sign languages in use around the world with many of them given equal recognition as spoken languages. Some signs for everyday things are universal – eating, sleeping, be silent, pointing, etc but beyond that, complex sign interpretations help deaf people to understand what is being said by a live speaker. Sign languages are fully fledged natural languages, structurally distinct from the spoken languages.

Sign languages evolve within deaf communities and neither mirror nor are dependent on the surrounding spoken languages. While sign languages are usually associated with hand shapes, the rules for well-formed sentences also include eyebrow position, eye position, hand motions and where signs occur in relation to the body. Facial expressions also play a fundamental role, notating rhythm and tone. There is also an international sign language, which is used by deaf people in international meetings, and informally, when travelling and socializing. It is considered a pidgin form of sign language that is not as complex as natural sign languages, and has a limited lexicon.

The UN recognizes and promotes the use of sign languages. It makes clear that sign languages are equal in status to spoken languages and obligates states to facilitate the learning of sign language and promote the linguistic identity of the deaf community. The UN General Assembly has proclaimed today (September 23) as the first-ever International Day of Sign Languages in order to raise awareness of the importance of sign languages for the full realization of the human rights of people who are deaf.

The first International Day of Sign languages will be celebrated this year under the theme “with sign language, everyone is included”. The resolution establishing the day acknowledges that early access to sign language and services in sign language, including quality education available in sign language, is vital to the growth and development of the deaf individual(s) and critical to the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals. It recognizes the importance of preserving sign languages as part of linguistic and cultural diversity. It also emphasizes the principle of “nothing about us without us” in terms of working with deaf communities.

In Sri Lanka, unfortunately, there is very little awareness of the rights of deaf people. It is not a ‘visible” disability unlike blindness or loss of limbs. Therefore, many deaf persons have to suffer in silence – no pun intended – as the rest of society goes about their business. Only the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) has made an effort to think about the deaf in their news programming, by employing sign language interpreters. They should be given credit for this laudable step. But there is a snag – there are only six qualified sign language interpreters in the country, which is woefully inadequate, considering the number of deaf people. The Government must step in to train more hearing capable people in sign language for the benefit of deaf persons. It would also help in the education of completely deaf children.

Complete deafness should not be confused with the “hard of hearing” condition, where the sufferer can often hear ambient sounds and some spoken words with the use of hearing aids. However, even this should be classified as a disability. The Government must grant suitable concessions for the import of hearing aids and their batteries, which are often expensive. People must be encouraged to get hearing tests, the same way the government promotes vision tests, especially, for those over 50.

There should be more Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing on our TV programmes in all three languages. Right now, many TV stations display Sinhala subtitles for Tamil programmes and vice versa, but this is mainly for the purpose of translation. There should be subtitles for the original language as well – in other words, a Sinhala programme should have Sinhala subtitles for the benefit of deaf and hearing impaired persons. Granted, it may be logistically impossible to do this for every programme, especially, live ones, but at least the more important programmes should have subtitles and closed captions in the original language. Organisers of live events too should try to have sign language interpreters where possible.

There are signs that the world is taking note of the importance of sign languages and the people who use them. The international coffee chain Starbucks recently announced that it would open its second sign language friendly store in the world in Washington, D.C. next month – in other words, the baristas and all other employees will be fluent in sign language, able to carry on a complex conversation with deaf customers (Some, though not all, of the employees are deaf themselves). It already has a similar facility in Malaysia. Organisations now realise that hiring deaf people or people with disability should not be viewed as a charity but as a way to improve a corporation’s reach across different segments of the market. Judging by these developments, there is no doubt that more opportunities will open for sign language users over the next few years.