Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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Deaf South Asians Signing and Living: Book Reviews

By M. Miles (m99miles@hotmail.com)

IMMANUEL, S. Prabakar, KOENIG, Claudia, & TESNI, Sian (eds) (1998) Listening to Sounds and Signs. Trends in deaf education and communication. Bangalore: Christoffel-Blindenmission, and Books for Change. vi + 214 pp. isbn 8187380101.

ZESHAN, Ulrike (2000) Sign language in Indo-Pakistan: a description of a signed language.Philadelphia, Pa., & Amsterdam: John Benjamins. xi + 178 pp. isbn 1556198574.

PATIL, Shilpa & GOPINATH, C.Y. (2000) Exploring the Sexual Vulnerability of Urban Deaf Indians.Mumbai: Project Signpost [ 105A Sunswept, Lokhandwala Complex, Andheri West, Mumbai 400053. ] 42 pp. E-mail: rehabit@vsnl.com

The future of Deaf cultures in Western Europe and North America may increasingly be affected by cochlear implants, by the dispersal of deaf children to the hearing mainstream, and by physical or psychological infertility reducing the general population. During the present century, the centre of gravity of the Deaf world can be expected to shift toward the rapidly growing peoples of mainland East Asia and South Asia.  Already more than half the world’s deaf children  and youth live in these two vast regions.

For the foreseeable future there will be no shortage of deaf Asian infants and children, and little prospect of any but a small minority of them having cochlear implants. At the present rate of progress and priority, the majority of those with moderate to severe hearing impairment are unlikely even to have elementary hearing aids or to access anything beyond the most basic formal education. Yet with rapidly growing urbanisation, far more will become members of local deaf communities and of formal deaf organisations; they will use a well-developed sign language, and some are likely to acquire a Deaf political identity. It is useful to ask now whether international public information is keeping pace with developments in the deaf Asian world, or at least among its more accessible parts.

English-language sources of information on deafness and signing in China were sparse throughout the 20th century, but at least Callaway (1999, 2000) has produced some detailed recent information about deaf children in the Nanjing region. The impression there is that substantial educational efforts have been made for the 'normalisation' of hearing impaired urban children by speech teaching and the use of imported technology; but indigenous sign languages still have low status and the obstacles for Deaf culture are formidable. Sources for South Asia in recent years have also been modest, represented for example by the Indian studies and advocacy from Dilip Deshmukh (1997) for sign language and bilingual education, and the ethnographic work by Surendre Verma (1999) in Delhi and by Irene Taylor (1997) among deaf people in Nepal. The latter work carries a lot of Himalayan photography, but does also provide a platform for some deaf Nepalis to present their points of view and hopes for the future.

Immanuel, Koenig & Tesni (details above) have edited a useful book of 19 chapters giving a wide-ranging overview of deafness, hearing impairment and deaf-blindness in India, with some mention of Sri Lanka. The 22 authors include hearing and deaf professionals, parents and deaf service users, representing a variety of sometimes conflicting opinions, in personal life stories and on topics such as educational methods, signing, and family experiences. Care has been taken to present some attractive aspects of each viewpoint, along with possible drawbacks; thus "it cannot be categorically stated that 'Integrated Education' is better than 'Deaf Schools' or vice versa. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages" (p. 164, by a deaf foreign professional working in India). The range of views is remarkable in one book, from "Deafness is primarily an enormous language problem" (p. 195, Indian hearing professional), through to "The problem of the deaf is not their lack of hearing, but a lack of understanding by the hearing people that the deaf have a language" (p. 61, Indian hearing professional).

Cultural Cringe
Though there are 17 Asian contributors, the continuing dominance of imported ideas is evident in the bibliography (pp. 211-212) listing entirely European or American works. Sian Tesni's own chapter on South India and Sri Lanka (pp. 177-192) deftly illustrates the persistent distortions introduced by the 'cultural cringe' in the face of western cultural dominance. While visiting institutions for deaf and hearing impaired children, she was often informed that only Oral teaching methods were used. "However, after informal and open discussions with key members of the staff regarding the different methodologies, the above declaration invariably changed to: 'We instructed the teachers not to sign today because of the overseas expert visiting our school. We thought that all the best schools for the deaf in the UK use the oral approach. In fact, our teachers use sign language. We do not have a formal sign language, only what we use in gestures and what we have learnt from the children. The children are always signing to each other.'" (p. 181)

Confusion or Convergence?
South Asia is blessed or plagued with a vast number of spoken languages of broadly Dravidian or Indo-Aryan origin, some having a degree of mutual intelligibility. Among more than 1.3 billion people, the range is hardly surprising. Over 20 languages have 'official' status, and several hundred more are spoken by groups of varying size. This diversity is to some extent reflected in the languages used by deaf people scattered across the region, ranging from limited gestural codes in home and immediate neighbourhood to linguistically complex sign language(s) in which several hundred thousand deaf people are fluent.

The impulses that cause some users of major spoken languages to try to thrust the benefits of their own language into the throats of minority language speakers seem to operate also in the South Asian deaf scene, as various schemes are 'in hand' to construct a unified Indian sign language. Deaf activist Gopalakrishnan, in Immanuel et al., believes that aside from some inevitable local variation, sign diversity in India has "retarded the growth and development of sign language", not least by confusing non-users (p. 82). Yet new research evidence is beginning to suggest a greater underlying unity than was earlier imagined.

Formal studies of sign diversity began at deaf schools in the Calcutta region as early as the 1920s, but were not followed up seriously until the mid 1970s, when Madan Vasishta and American colleagues began to use filmed evidence in studies of deaf groups. Across a decade they documented Indian SL varieties at Bangalore, Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. Meanwhile Nordic technical assistance was applied to Sign Language studies and dictionaries in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and similar efforts resulted in documentation of Nepali SL. These opened the way for James Woodward (1993) to compare varieties in sign vocabularies across urban centres in Pakistan, Nepal and India, suggesting that they were "distinct but closely related language varieties that belong to the same language family."

The next advances have been made by Ulrike Zeshan (details above), on the basis of her structural and grammatical analysis of many hours of video recordings in field work at Karachi from 1994 onward and more recent studies in Delhi. This "clearly indicates that sign language varieties in both cities in fact constitute the same language and have identical grammars" (p. 1). The signs, morphology and syntax of this single IPSL (Indo-Pak Sign Language) are described and explained in Zeshan's book using language and symbols that are of necessity technical, yet surprisingly comprehensible to the non-specialist. Perhaps communication researchers should always be expected to express themselves clearly - but not all are ready to make the effort when giving a textual description of complex visual-kinetic material. Apparently Zeshan understood that among those who might wish to read up on IPSL there are many deaf and hearing people with little or no background in linguistics. The book serves as an illustrated and action-packed introduction to how modern linguistics gets to grips with a sign language.

Zeshan's verbal and graphic communication efforts culminate in descriptions of the use of space in the structuring of discourse in fluent IPSL, where the whole body is communicating in space and time "to stage situations before the addressee in a film-like way" (p. 126), representing several characters in a story from their different points of view. This admirable cinematic potential is one of the factors inspiring the researcher "to ever more detailed studies of sign language structure." (p. 129) Such enthusiasm recalls the statements of the American danseuse La Meri sixty years ago, about how she used the traditional Indian dance language of hand and bodily gesture to communicate with Tamil colleagues. Some artistic hyperbole might be suspected; yet La Meri was a highly skilled and knowledgeable performer and communicator. She asserted (1941, p. 27) that "The hand-language is as complete and expressive as any spoken language", two decades before William Stokoe's studies opened up the linguistic battle for Deaf Sign as real and complete language. La Meri went on to give examples of the versatility of the Indian "hand-language". Glimpses of that language, or similar ones, appear in many texts reaching far back into Indian antiquity, where they seem to have been not uncommon among hearing people (Miles, 2000).

Deaf Lives and Sexual Vulnerability
Academic discussion of technical progress in signing and education, while of great importance for the future of deaf cultures, can give a misleading impression of the quality of the lives led by deaf South Asians now, the opportunities open to them and the hazards to which they may casually be exposed. Some of the urban hazards, particularly to deaf women, appear in the exploratory two-year study by hearing researchers Patil and Gopinath, with Macarthur Population Programme assistance. This took place among groups of adults and young people in Deaf Organisations at Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai using questionnaires and open-ended discussions with interpreters and facilitators.

The authors are correctly cautious about the wider applicability of their results; yet the study does provide some anecdotal yet credible insights into the family dynamics, communication problems and everyday social and sexual vulnerability currently experienced by deaf people, and the additional difficulties faced in providing and receiving appropriate sex education and awareness. As AIDS begins to come through in a big way in South Asia, Patil and Gopinath point out that young deaf Indians "are deeply endangered by their ignorance and low levels of awareness, and also by their friendly, affection-seeking temperaments" resulting in high-risk behaviour. Morality is less at issue than mortality.

CALLAWAY, Alison (1999) Translating theory into practice in a different cultural context: a bilingual approach for deaf children in China. In: E. Stone (ed) Disability and Development. Leeds, UK: The Disability Press.

CALLAWAY, A (2000) Deaf Children in China. Gallaudet University Press.

DESHMUKH, D (1997) Sign Language and Bilingualism in Deaf Education. Ichalkaranj, India: Deaf Foundation.

LA MERI [Russell Meriwether HUGHES] (1941) The Gesture Language of Hindu Dance. New York: Columbia UP.

MILES, M (2000) Sign, Gesture & Deafness in South Asian & South-West Asian Histories: a bibliography with annotation & excerpts from India [etc]. University of Hamburg, Institute of Sign Language website. At: www.sign-lang.uni-hamburg.de/bibweb/Miles/Miles.html

TAYLOR, Irene (1997) Buddhas in Disguise, Deaf People in Nepal. San Diego: DawnSign.

VASISHTA, MM, WOODWARD, JC, & WILSON, KL (1978) Sign language in India: regional variation within the deaf population. Indian J. Applied Linguistics IV (2) 66-74.

VERMA, Surendre M (1999) Social Integration of the Deaf: a study of Delhi. New Delhi: Northern Book Centre. xxvi + 182 pp.

WOODWARD, J (1993) The relationship of sign language varieties in India, Pakistan and Nepal. Sign Language Studies 78: 15-22.

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