The Silent Conversation | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 22, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

The Silent Conversation

The Silent Conversation

Bangladesh with more than 30 lakh hearing impaired people, lacks adequate opportunities for learning sign language. This week the Star talks to the Society of the Deaf and Sign Language Users (SDSL) which is the lone organisation attempting to teach sign language using an organised framework to address the crisis this language is facing.

Hands can talk. That too in a language that possibly has the most elements when compared to any other spoken language of the world. It's a language where your fingers will spell for you, your face will talk for you and your body will express your inner thoughts.

Even though the country has more than 30 lakh hearing impaired people, the opportunities for learning sign language is inadequate and disappointing. In Dhaka, Society of the Deaf and Sign Language Users (SDSL) is the lone organisation attempting to teach sign language using an organized framework. The dearth of adept trainers is already there, but what we need to establish is a sign language institute in our country in order to support, preserve and develop Bangla sign language.

Formed in 2008, the SDSL, is a Disabled People Organisation (DPO) in Bangladesh that is run by sign language users with an aim to represent the community of Bangla Sign Language users. This community is committed to train anyone who is interested in learning the Bangla sign language.

Even though the Bangla Sign Language is recognised as a language of Bangladesh by the declaration of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as of February 1, 2009, it still does not have any legal protection and no steps have been taken towards institutionalisation of the language. As a result sign language users can not enjoy full access to vital information and services including education, health services and employment opportunities. This community, thus, works to establish the rights of sign language users.

The sign language users regard a few of the initiatives taken by the Bangladesh Government as a milestone in recognising their language. In the year of 1994, Ministry of Social Welfare and Bangladesh National Federation of the Deaf collaboratively published a Bangla sign language dictionary in a view to making sign language popular to everyone. Since then, this dictionary has been treated as a treasure resource to all the sign language enthusiasts, including both the learners and the instructors. However, since then the content of the dictionary is not being comprehensively revised or the entire work is not being updated. In fact for last twenty years Bangladesh Government has not taken that many significant initiative in the development of Bangla sign language, comments Firoze Ahmad, General Secretary, Bangladesh National federation of the Deaf (BNFD).
The inclusion of news interpreters for people with hearing and speech impediments is surely an achievement for sign language users. However, advocates argue that even though you will find some television channels incorporating interpreting the speech being stated into sign language, there is still a lot to be done to include sign language interpretation into mainstream media. “The presence of sign language interpreters in events and on television media is unsatisfactory,” says Mizanur Rahman General Secretary of SDSL.

The word “Right” (above) and “Bangladesh” are expressed using sign alphabets from the manual followed by SDSL. Photo: Prabir Das
The word “Right” (above) and “Bangladesh” are expressed using sign alphabets from the manual followed by SDSL. Photo: Prabir Das
Photo: Prabir Das
Photo: Prabir Das

Even though including sign language interpreters is definitely an acknowledgement of the right to information of the hearing and speech impaired, SDSL bemoans the fact that many interpreters working on national television do not even have an in-depth, extensive knowledge of sign language.

While SDSL provides advocacy and technical support for the audition structure of sign language news presenters of the tv channels, SDSL alleged that the appointment of two inept news interpreters was a direct consequence of cronyism. A piece of news can be pointlessly confusing if the news interpreter does not have proper sign language skills. Despite trying to bring this to the attention of the director of BTV, they failed to terminate the said interpreters.

“To be a sign language interpreter in a news channel it's very important to belong to an environment where you have dealt with hearing impaired people for a longer period,” believes Arafat Sultana Lata, a sign language interpreter of BTV news. “Being an interpreter is not an easy feat, one should take this profession with proper honesty and training.”

“The government has taken a remarkable initiative to preserve and protect endangered languages of the minority groups of the country by establishing eight language institutes all over the country,” says Osman Khaled, chairman of SDSL.“However, despite being a language of a large number of people, sign language does not seem to be getting the attention from the state that it truly deserves. I believe having a language institute for Bangla sign language is an imperative for its development and preservation.”

Even though recent steps have been taken to improve the state of things, these well-intentioned initiatives seem to be carelessly and negligently planned out. For instance, the Ministry of Social Welfare had formed a committee of 14 members to standardise the Bangla sign language at the beginning of the year. However, only four amongst them can actually communicate using the language while the rest don't have any knowledge regarding the language. How can people with absolutely no idea about the language be involved in a committee that works to standardise it?

The lack of sincere, efficient and enthusiastic people who would be willing to work for the welfare of the speech and hearing impaired is a major concern, believes Shireen Begum, President of the Bangladesh Women Deaf Welfare Association. Her husband Monjur Ahmed was known as Badhirder Bagh (the tiger of the deaf), as he willed his whole life for the welfare of the hearing impaired community of Bangladesh. 84-year-old Ahmed is now bed ridden but we can learn a lesson or two from this courageous, dedicated activist about fighting for the welfare of a major community of the country, believe the members of SDSL.

Shireen Begum also stressed on the importance of the government's support in having sign language interpreters in the courts or other legal settings. “A large number of deaf and mute girls are raped every year, therefore having sign language interpreters in courts is vital so that the victims get justice.” she concludes.

Rafiq Zaman, a founder member of SDSL believes that the definition of language that we have learnt all our life in the Bengali grammar books is itself faulty. “Unfortunately there has not been any research on the use or the evolution of the Bangla sign language. Conducting extensive research and study would be possible only if we have a language institute for Bangla sign language under the guidance of the Ministry of Education.”If the government does not pay attention to the development of our sign language, we will have hard time preserving our native language as there is a high chance of foreign signs intervening in Bangla sign language.

Connecting in silence using different body parts can also be a wonderful mean of communication, all it needs is to bloom with proper care and attention.

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