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February 1, 2003

Deaf-mute find new language: SMS

From: Mid-Day Mumbai, India - 01 Feb 2003

By: Tamara D’mello
February 1,2003

sms01.jpgThose little ‘msgs’ that flash across your mobile probably don’t thrill you the way they once did. But for Mumbai’s deaf population, Short Messaging Service (SMS) has become the single-most efficient form of communication.

Meher Sethna-Dadabhoy, coordinator of the Indian Sign Language at the Ali Yawar Jung National Institute for the Hearing Handicapped, Bandra, says a mobile phone has become essential for hearing-impaired, working people. “Once they begin working, their priority is not food or entertainment, it’s getting a mobile phone,” she says.

The popularity of the SMS is easily explained: text is short and understood even by those not used to the English language. It’s also quick, and since most mobiles can be set on vibrator mode, the deaf user is easily alerted to a message.

“Once they start working, there is the need to use a mobile for communication. If they cannot afford to buy one, many try to at least share a phone,” Sethna-Dadabhoy says.

The non-hearing teachers at Jung institute all use mobile phones. Gopal Motwani, one of the teachers, indicates through sign language: “I use SMS for everything — for work or to contact friends.”

Uday Bhaskar, who has come to Mumbai from Hyderabad, says he uses SMS to keep in touch with friends back home. “Because of SMS, we are able to ‘speak’ to our friends around the country,” Bhaskar writes.

None seem to have found it difficult to adjust to messaging. Mona Shah, another teacher, says that after her brother taught her to message, she has had no problems. Even the fact that she doesn’t know much English does not hinder her.

“I only write and receive short messages, so it is easy to use,” she says. Chat and email are also extremely popular. Dharmesh Thakkar, another instructor, says with sign language that he spends all his free time on his computer. “If I am at home alone, I just SMS my friends, and we have a good time,” he says.

But though SMS seems like something of an answer to their prayers, the cost of buying a mobile and paying the monthly bill is high. Motwani says he spends Rs 300 on his SMS bill. This is more than many of the hearing impaired can afford.

Unfortunately, none of the cellular networks in the city offer any discount on SMS for the deaf. “In Hyderabad and Chennai, Orange offers SMS free for the deaf, but in Mumbai, there is no similar scheme,” Motwani says.

Was it past frustration or a freak incident?

Tamara D’mello

OnJanuary 27, twelve students at a school for the deaf and mute in Nagpur were arrested for suffocating to death a teacher who objected to boys and girls mixing during evening hours.

Police said the act resulted from a deep frustration the students felt due to the teacher’s strictness.
However, two experts in Mumbai expressed different opinions over whether it was just a rule that led the students to murder, which they have confessed to.

* Unhappiness built up over time

Brother William D’Mello, director of Stephen’s High School for the deaf, Prabhadevi, said, “Deaf students are emotionally very high-strung and may be more susceptible to temper tantrums. But the fact that they had been planning to poison their teachers since Diwali indicates something was taking place that students were unhappy with.”

D’Mello said some issues in the case have not been sufficiently explored. For instance, were the teachers competent and what was the reason for the rigidly enforced rule. Also, the extreme reactions of two of the school’s teachers after hearing of the students’ confession to police – one died from a heart attack and the other had to be hospitalised.

* A freak incident

Dr R Rangasayee, director of the Ali Yawar Jung National Institute for the Hearing Handicapped, Bandra, said: “Most deaf students are well-behaved and agreeable, therefore, the incident that occurred must be looked at in its own context. It was a freak incident.”