Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together – Vincent Van Gogh

Posts tagged ‘hearing impairment’

Meeting a Deafblind lawyer

Meeting a deaf-blind lawyer,

Mr. Riku Virtanen

Riku VirtanenRecently, thanks to a programme organized by the Bangalore Unit of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and the Society for Human Rights, Bangalore, I was able to have my first ever meeting with a deaf-blind person. Mr. Riku Virtanen is a lawyer who specializes in human rights and hails from Finland.

Interestingly, even thought Mr. Virtanen is young, he is already rather accomplished. A Board member on the Threshold Association (a human rights organization which promotes the rights of persons with disabilities in Finland), he is also a Consultant Member on the Board of the Finnish Deafblind Association and has worked on several reports and surveys in Finnish.

Mr Virtanen has also published a survey in English related to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in May 2008 and in addition was at two Ad Hoc meetings when the United Nations was preparing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

braille-bookMy first thought, which was a strong motivator for attending this meeting, was how does a person who is both deaf and blind communicate? I had heard about deaf-blindness thanks to Helen Keller, but reading about Helen Keller was theory, meeting someone who was like her was intriguing. And there was Mr Virtanen, sitting at his Braille display board with his two interpreters by his side; incidentally both of them are named Jenni (pronounced Yenni in Finish).

deafblindcoataspenMr Virtanen uses a combination of Jaws and the Braille display board when he is working on the computer. His Braille display board acts as both a keyboard and a monitor. Text on the screen uses Jaws and converts itself into Braille, it then displays itself on his Braille display board. The Braille display board can also be typed on and the content will get converted into text on the computer. This is how Mr Virtanen surfs the net, replies to his mail and types into his computer.

Signing HandsAdditionally, Mr Virtanen also uses sign language to communicate with those around him, and by placing his hand on the hand of the interpreter who is also signing, can read what is being said to him!. Thanks to his supporting country Mr Virtanen is also lucky to have a cochlear implant which along with a hearing aid allows him to hear albeit only slightly.

Just sitting at the discussion with Mr Virtanen was an interesting process in participating in an ‘Inclusive Discussion’. The participants had to speak slowly to allow the first interpreter to type on what those around were saying into the computer, even while Mr Virtanen kept feeling and thus reading his way on the Braille display board.

When Mr Virtanen wanted to intervene he would sign and vocalize to his interpreter in Finnish, who would then translate it into English for the audience. A seemingly slow process, but an interesting lesson in inclusion, participation and democracy at a discussion. Amazingly, Mr Virtanen reads and writes English, but speaks Finish! Don’t ask me to explain this one J

Undoubtedly, Finland is a better place to be in for a deaf-blind person, than India. This country allowed, Mr. Riku Virtanen to go to school, college and then law school. However Mr. Virtanen assures us it wasn’t easy, having a disability is an expensive affaire, as the person requires assistive devices, assistive technologies and a personal assistant as in the case of Mr. Virtanen. His parents had to fight with the government to have them fund these facilities and that’s how Mr. Virtanen got introduced to the ‘Rights’ issue of disability, it also guided him to law.

Interestingly, Mr. Virtanen lives independently in Finland, though he requires assistance when he goes out. He currently uses the white cane to move around but is also accompanied by a personal assistant. Mr. Virtanen hopes to get himself a guiding dog sometime soon.

Mr. Virtanen also has hobbies just like all other people, and they include chess, fishing and collecting ancient books, which he clarified, he does not read J.

What came across from the discussion was that a country like Finland, allows a person with disability to live as independent and fulfilled a life as a non-disabled person and that’s what Mr. Virtanen said as much.

But all is not rosy; Finland has much scope to improve, especially in terms of accessibility. It is also yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities but that is because it is currently trying to harmonize its internal legislation with the international one.

India on the other hand is quiet the reverse. It is quick to ratify any international convention and laws, but is extremely slow to implement these changes national, and it is needless to say that this is the case with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities too.

Listening to her heart

Listening to her heart


Disability rights activist Michele Friedner, who has severe bilateral hearing loss herself, is now studying how disability is tackled in everyday life. Bharathi Prabhu has the details

“Hmmm, my achievements?  Getting a gas connection, wrangling for a research permit from the Commissioner of police, braving Bangalore traffic….” ticks off Michele Friedner on her fingers.

Typical “foreigner in India” speak? Wait till you hear about Michele’s other and more significant achievements. Graduating from a large public high school at the top of her class and later from an Ivy League university with a magna cum laude degree, working as a disability rights activist, getting published in the globally reputed Economic and Political Weekly, pursuing her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley… All these despite her severe-profound bilateral hearing loss.

To read the rest of this article visit Deccan Herald

Hearing Impaired demand Inclusion

Hearing Impaired demand Inclusion


Helen Keller is supposed to have famously said, “It is better to be blind than to be hearing impaired”. In the world of the hearing impaired, silence is not golden, infact it is deeply isolating as the impairment cuts off nearly 50% of all stimulation and information coming in from the environment. The inability to understand and be understood by friends, peer, parents and family, leaves people with a hearing impairment deeply frustrated and irritable. People with a hearing impairment make up 15-20% of the total disabled population in India. Because one cannot identify a person with a hearing impairment from an external physical deformity, they often go unnoticed and as if the disability does not exist, it goes unaddressed, especially in government policy and planning.

In medical terms, hearing impairment refers to a physical condition characterized by a lack of sensitivity to sound. There are degrees of deafness such as mild, moderate and severe. Only 10% of people with a hearing impairment experience severe hearing impairment in that they hear no sound at all. There are numerous causes for the loss of hearing which may range from genetic disorders, congenital causes, untreated infections, trauma, toxicological causes, age related and occupational. A hearing impairment does not automatically imply a speech impairment. In a majority of cases however speech is impaired precisely because it is learnt through hearing. However with prolonged speech therapy a person with a hearing impairment may be taught to vocalize. Besides a large number of people with a hearing impairment can lip read and so one can have a lengthy conversation with them without much difficulty.

If we look at statistics, we would have approximately 10,000 people with a hearing impairment in Karnataka and about eight million in India, and yet, this is a conservative figure, as, with the increasing noise pollution and occupational hazards, the number of people with hearing impairments are only increasing. It is a matter of deep concern that not enough is being done by way of research to develop an understanding about hearing impairment as a disability and making places such as educational institutions and public spaces friendly for the hearing impaired. The Sarva Shiksha Abhayan (SSA), which spends crores of rupees trying to ensure ‘Education for All’ and 100% retention in school’ has for example yet to come up with teaching aids for teachers and modify the syllabi, so that students with a hearing impairment can actively participate in the academic process. Thus ‘Inclusive education’ is just a farce for children with a hearing impairment who still have to go to Special Schools for the hearing impaired. The hurdles increase when students try to pursue higher education. In the Special Schools, students with a hearing impairment are taught sign language but little or no lip reading; this method assumes that all hearing people understand sign language and perpetuates the problem of communication faced by people with a hearing impairment. The faulty methodology of teaching which does not allow for full language development and simultaneous use of signing and lip reading, has ensured that few people with a hearing impairment meet with academic success.

Additionally, it has been found that only children with access to economic resources and professional assistance manage to get the required speech therapy while those from poor economic backgrounds living in remote areas rely on sign language. This economic divide thus determines the options a person with a hearing impairment has to communicate with non-impaired people around them.

The deep isolation and lack of confidence that people with a hearing impairment experience has ensured that people with a hearing impairment are one of the most marginalized disabilities. Their lack of adequate representation in the disability movement has further affected their cause.

However, People with a hearing impairment are tired of being neglected they are now demanding cheap and easy access to medical intervention in terms of hearing aids, corrective surgery and speech therapy. They are also asking that SSA teach lip reading and sign language in schools so that the hearing impaired have two options to communicate. The teaching material to be modified so that they benefit from going to school and that resource rooms set up under SSA continuously develop and update teaching aids. In an effort to ensure their visibility people with a hearing impairment are demanding that public spaces like roads, buses and train stations besides banks, libraries, theaters and public buildings have signages and maps that are informative and directive for a person with a hearing impairment, and that there be sign language interpreters in these places as well.

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