While traveling in Sweden, Islam Ul Haq stopped to get some food at a McDonalds. To Ul Haq’s surprise, the cashier understood his sign language. This struck him as particularly impressive, since deaf people in his home country of India often can’t communicate with someone in just the next town.
"That level of communication would be a dream come true here in India," said Ul Haq, an Indian master trainer in sign language.
Ul Haq is working to realize his dream, as one of 15 government workers creating India’s first sign language dictionary. The team is compiling more than 7,000 signs that correspond to a variety of academic, medical, legal and technical subjects.
India has roughly 700 schools that teach sign language, with very little integration into the mainstream school system. Only 250 people are certified sign language interpreters. India's deaf population is somewhere between a low of 1.8 million and a high of 60 million. The wide gap is because exact numbers are unknown—India's census totals all citizens with disabilities but doesn’t specifically count people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
For many, being deaf in India means a life with few opportunities. Opportunities for education, employment and recreation are limited. Even the connection and support of a broad deaf community is hard to find. The country’s sign language is neither standardized nor documented. Without it, even social communication between individuals is restricted.
The lack of a uniform sign language system both limits and localizes communication. There are enough frequently used signs for casual conversation between deaf signers in neighboring communities. However, sign language users run into a variety of communication problems if they venture from their hometown.
India is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world and deaf culture is no exception. Sign language varies drastically from region to region and people from one region have a difficult time communicating with those from other regions. A signed gesture can mean something totally different in two regions, Ul Haq told the BBC.
"If you make the crossing arms with clenched fists sign, in some parts of southern India, it denotes 'marriage' whereas in some northern regions it signifies 'jail,'” he said.
Being deaf in India usually means a quick fall out of the education system. Without a universally used sign language curriculum, there’s no practical way for students or teachers to learn the language. The deaf and hard of hearing are quickly segregated into the few specialized schools—if they have access to them—or simply leave school.
The job search for a deaf person in India is unforgiving. The government has quotas for hiring disabled workers, but deaf people often find themselves barred from these jobs. India’s 1995 People With Disabilities Act doesn’t mandate that the private sector uphold any of the government hiring quotas.
The government often neglects its own commitment to the deaf. In one well-publicized case, Mani Ram Sharma passed the Indian Administrative Service exam three times but was denied a position because officials forbid hiring anyone with less than 70 percent hearing—despite the existing quota to hire disabled individuals. Mani Ram was finally accepted into the service in 2009, but only after receiving a cochlear implant.
A sign language dictionary would prove invaluable to deaf and hearing Indians alike, supporters say, by promoting the acquisition of sign language in schools, government offices, and the private sector. A standardized dictionary of sign language could enrich the language. It’s a chance to help unite India’s deaf and hard of hearing citizens, to give them a greater prospect to interact with the hearing public. If Ul Haq’s dream comes true, a simple dictionary could help give India’s deaf citizens access to a new world.