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.