When Sabah Sayyad was in school, teachers would hit her if they found her using sign language. Sayyad, who is deaf and is now 22, recounted that the school, which was for deaf students, expected them to lip read, use residual hearing if they had any, and try and use their voices.
This approach to deaf education is common across many deaf schools in India. It stems from a philosophy known as “oralism” in which, according to one definition, “deaf learners are prevented from using ‘manual’ signs, which are deemed to be a primitive form of communication and inferior to the spoken word”.
But deaf activists have been fighting back against what they see as a regressive and deeply dangerous attitude. Sibaji Panda, a Deaf activist, described oralism a “human rights infringement”. He said, “Oralism unnecessarily creates cognitive, emotional and linguistic damage by stopping deaf children from a natural complete language acquisition through sign language, which is their right.”
Nolina Minj met deaf students, educators and activists to learn of how the community has suffered under a system of education that centres oralism. “I was dismayed to find out that the use of the Indian sign language in deaf schools in the country is a rarity than the norm,” Minj said.
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