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April 29, 2007

The thundering sound of silence

From: Hindu - Chennai,India - Apr 29, 2007

Mala Ashok

THE REPORT "Voicing issues concerning deaf and dumb" (The Hindu, April 8) highlighted some very valid concerns of the hearing impaired. Our country's record towards its disabled people is not something to be proud of.

As Justice Chandru, the main speaker at the discussion, rightly pointed out, no human being, able or disabled, seeks alms or charity. All that the disabled are asking for is some recognition of their unique abilities and their fair share of the employment pie.

Justice Chandru goes on to define the `sensitivity index' of a country towards its disabled persons as the level of opportunity provided to them. I would add that sensitivity of a country should be the sum of the sensitivities of all the individuals comprising the nation.

Let us consider a small test. Take a look at the portrayal of two categories of `invisibly disabled' (example non-crippled or non-visually impaired) people such as deaf or mentally ill people, on the small screen. Almost invariably these characters are the butt of jokes and just as definitely, the viewer, far from sympathising with the plight of the tormented person, joins in the mirth.

Even the slightly sensitive person, with such constant desensitising, begins to see the situation and characterisation as funny. Worse still, there is transference of these values to real life situations, which is most unfortunate.

The discussion participants `voiced' their concern that deaf and dumb people do not get their fair share of opportunity even when compared with other disabled people such as visually impaired persons. Somehow deafness is considered less of a shortcoming than other disabilities.

An eye-opener

I must confess here that I too subscribed to this school of thought till last year. At that time I volunteered briefly at a pre-school for deaf and hearing impaired children in Canada. The very first day of the training for the position was an eye-opener for me. Tapes were played which gave us an idea of how much a `normal' person heard versus what a hearing impaired person with different degrees of hearing loss heard. It was shocking to note how little they heard.

Further, we assume that when a person who has a hearing aid cannot hear, he is wilfully not concentrating. It is not true! The volunteers in the above training class were all given hearing aids and allowed to `hear' simulated `sounds' and believe me this time the experience was even more shattering — it appeared that all the sound except what we wanted to hear got magnified! It is only when science tries to simulate nature that one can appreciate how sophisticated nature is and how difficult it is to duplicate it. We were even allowed to experience the simulated effects of Cochlear Implants but that was only marginally better.

I came out of this training class with a new awareness of what this group of disabled people — both those who were born deaf and those who lost their hearing as part of the aging process — goes through. Developed countries are able to develop their `sensitivity index.' We may not be able to afford all the gadgets and gizmos that they do for every one of our disabled persons but nothing stops us from empathising with differently abled people. This will go a long way in penetrating their wall of silence.

© 2007, The Hindu.