Many of us have heard this several times - “kosh kosh pe pani badle, dedh kosh pe vani” - a famous aphorism in India which means ‘the taste of water changes after every mile and the language changes after every one and a half mile’. In a country like India where there are many languages and dialects spoken, people face problems in communicating. When a person with all sense organs working intact, faces such setback, how difficult it would be for those who don't have either of the sense organs functioning properly?
The problems faced by the deaf and dumb people in India can be broadly classified into categories like social interaction, language and communication, education, behavioural problems, mental health, and safety concerns. Their problems have been worsened by the absence of a proper sign language training centre in India.
Many civil society organisations and associations working for the deaf and dumb community in India have been voicing their demand for a national research and training centre that would educate them. Though Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), in association with UK India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI), for past few years has been running a BA course on Applied Sign Linguistics, still it required a larger scale adoption to reach each and every corner of this country.
Looking at this need, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment along with Ministry of Human Resource Development have decided to open a National Centre named as Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) and has entrusted the responsibility of running this centre to IGNOU. The centre is expected to become functional by September this year.
Mukul Wasnik, Minister for Social Justice & Empowerment detailed the need for setting up the institution for helping the Deaf and Dumb community with India Education Review as, “As per the 2001 Census, hearing handicapped persons numbered about 13 lakh and constituted 0.13 per cent of the population of the country. The needs of the Deaf community in India and their problems have been documented by various organizations working for the deaf. The Institute will lead the way in academic development, training and propagation of the Indian Sign Language. The output will be measured in terms of number of people trained in sign language, number of outreach and awareness programmes, research and development etc.”
Prof. V N Rajasekharan Pillai, while talking to India Education Review on this issue, said, “The genesis of this institute happened in 2007 when we submitted a proposal to UK India Education Research Initiative for developing a training programme for teachers of deaf students. This got sanctioned and we started this in collaboration with University of Lancashire and Indira Gandhi national Open University. There are not many qualified deaf teachers across the country and we need around 10000 of them.”
“The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment saw that IGNOU is doing a BA programme in Sign Language, a joint degree programme and they approached us. We had interacted with National Association of Deaf and also Association of Hearing Impaired and number of other institutions and three expert committees were set up. More than 200 people from different strata of life participated in discussions and based on their recommendations, we gave proposal to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment”, Prof. Pillai added further.
The Minister also elaborated the objectives to be achieved during the pilot phase of the project as, “The overall aim of the Centre is to be a beacon in the development of all aspects of Indian Sign Language (ISL) and the Deaf Community, wherein the ISL gains its rightful linguistic, cultural, educational, social and legal place in the national and global scenario. The Centre will lead the way in academic developments, teaching, training, technology-integration, and propagation of sign language in India. Through its multi-faced strategies and approaches, it is expected that ISL would become an accepted, recognized and revered language becoming part of the multilingual history and tradition of India.”
The setting up of this national level institution was not a smooth as there were apprehensions from various sectors as well as the stakeholders about IGNOU being given the responsibility of establishing ISLRTC. It took the Vice Chancellor and his team six months to convince the MHRD and MSJE that as per IGNOU’s act, it is empowered to establish a full-fledged institute.
Talking about choosing IGNOU for setting up the Institution, Minister said, “the first thing is IGNOU is a pioneer in open and distance education and it provides cost effective quality education. They have already a National Centre for Disability Studies and Sign Language Programmes. Hence, they possess the requisite experience and expertise for running the Centre. Establishing the Centre as an autonomous Centre within the framework of IGNOU will have the advantage of wider spread of its activities through IGNOU’s large number of Regional Centres (61) and more than 3000 study centres and thus becoming the Centre of Excellence in the field.”
According to Malyaj Varmani, Head, UKIERI, Scholarships and Skill Development, “The establishment of the Bachelor Preparation Programme for Deaf students and then the BA in Applied Sign Language Studies are key achievements of this collaboration. The Indian Ministry's decision to base the ISLRTC at IGNOU is the result of the previous work between University of Central Lancashire and IGNOU, which gives credibility to IGNOU as the base for this new centre. The developed programme is the only university programme in and about sign language at university level in India.” Varmani further emphasised that the establishment of the new ISLRTC is a very important milestone for the Indian deaf community.
“We aim to have continuous research collaboration between International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies at University of Central Lancashire and the new ISLRTC. IGNOU is one of the key universities in India and have been working actively under UKIERI,” said Malyaj.
According to Prof. Pillai, “First, I am planning a meeting of experts in our own country and also meeting the sign language experts all over the world and also several civil society organisations working for the deaf. Based on their recommendations, we will go ahead with the programme.”
He added that IGNOU will establish 24 special centres with help from large number of training institutes for deaf in India and it will also run the training from some of the existing regional centres of the University across the country. Talking about the fee structure, the Vice Chancellor informed that it has not been decided yet but it will be very nominal or might be almost free of cost because the institute will be run as a supported body and not a self financed structure.