When Neha Atique was in Class 4, she shifted to a non-deaf school at the behest of her parents, schoolteachers, and friends.

In medical terms Atique is 100% deaf. So, on the face of it, sending her to a hearing school where she couldn’t understand what her teachers or classmates said made little sense. But it was the only way to ensure that Atique, the most promising student in her class at a school in Goregaon, Mumbai, received a proper education, enabling her to pursue a profession. This would not have been possible at the deaf school.

Atique, who requested that the school’s name be withheld, explained that she performed well at the deaf school because she received additional tutoring at home from her father, a teacher at another school. “But others belonging to a lower socio-economic background didn’t have the same kind of support,” Atique signed in the Indian Sign Language, or ISL, interpreted by her colleague Sana Sheikh.

The reasons why the family was convinced that Atique, who is now 31 years old, needed to shift are telling of a deep problem with deaf education in the country.

“In deaf schools in India, students are kept in the same class for many years,” Atique said. “They are considered to be slow learners and they are taught the same thing for three to four years”

This observation was echoed by several educators and activists to whom Scroll spoke. Over email, Deaf activist Sibaji Panda explained why this tended to happen. Deaf children, he said, are rarely taught sign language in their early years, and were often sent to school several years later than the norm. (According to one style convention, the first letter of the word “Deaf” is capitalised when the word is used in association with deaf pride and activism.)

“So the deaf schools receive many children who have no functional language when they join, which may also be several years late,” Panda said. “Then they cannot manage in the classes meant for their age, and waste more time repeating years.”

Several deaf persons that Scroll spoke with, and their teachers, also explained that most deaf schools focus primarily on ensuring that students pass their board exams, and less on teaching them foundational ideas that they can build on – thus, in many cases, classes are conducted from Classes 1 to 7, after which teachers teach the Class 10 syllabus for three years straight, skipping out Classes 8 and 9, with the intent that students can directly be prepared for the exams.

Moreover, deaf children are taught different subjects from those taught in hearing schools. “They are not taught regular math or science, instead they have basic math and science and vocational subjects like crafts, tailoring and cooking,” said Aman Sharma, co-founder at the Training and Educational Centre for Hearing impaired, or TEACH, which is in Mumbai, and which provides higher education to deaf students.

Atique concurred. “The subjects included cooking, basic math, basic computers etc,” she said. “There were no books, the teachers chose certain topics and explained those.” Only while teaching for the Class 10 Secondary School Certificate exams did teachers use books, she added.

In fact, there was a fundamental problem with the very philosophy of education followed by Atique’s school and most other deaf schools in the country: an emphasis on “oralism”.

According to the Sage Deaf Studies Encyclopedia, “‘oral’ education, or ‘oralism,’ refers to a philosophy of education in which deaf learners are prevented from using ‘manual’ signs, which are deemed to be a primitive form of communication and inferior to the spoken word.”

Thus, deaf students are trained to use their voices, and to lip read, and use residual hearing if they have any, so that they can “integrate” smoothly into society. Since the early 1900s, this philosophy has been rejected by many Deaf activists, beginning with those in the West – they argue that deaf people form a linguistic and cultural minority who need an accessible and complete language that fulfills their needs.

They argue that the oral approach places an unjustified burden on deaf people, and prevents them from developing their faculties more fully through sign language, which is immediately accessible to them. “Oralism is a human rights infringement because every human being needs a complete language,” Panda said. “Oralism unnecessarily creates cognitive, emotional and linguistic damage by stopping deaf children from a natural complete language acquisition through sign language, which is their right.”

Neha Atique and Sana Sheikh teach at the Training and Educational Centre for Hearing impaired, or TEACH, which is in Mumbai, and which works in the area of higher education for deaf students. Photos: Nolina Minj

Atique recounted that at her school, both speech and sign language were used. “There was more importance given to speech, but I could only follow the signs,” she said. She stood first in her class, and showed so much potential that her school principal suggested she could do better at a hearing school.

The hearing school that Atique shifted to was run by the same management as the deaf school. But the shift was far from easy. “At first, I was very happy to go to a hearing school, but once I sat in a lecture, I couldn’t understand a word,” she said. “I couldn’t communicate with anyone, not even with the teacher. I had no friends, no support and I remember crying a lot.”

She was also mocked and bullied by some of her classmates. “They used to sign in front of me and then laugh,” she said. “I had to manage all of this as well. I only had one or two friends.”

But despite this, Atique managed to thrive in her studies at the hearing school because of free support that the staff of her former school extended to her, which she acknowledged was invaluable. “From 7 am to 12 pm I attended the hearing school, and then from 12.30 pm to 5 pm I sat with the principal and teachers of the deaf school who explained things to me,” she said. The principal and teachers used both sign language and speech to tutor Atique.

Atique toiled this way for several years, and eventually scored 75% in her Class 10 exams. She noted that her decision to shift schools proved to be justified given that she completed the level at the same age as her hearing classmates. “When I cleared my Class 10 exams, I was 15 years old, but my friends at the deaf school finished when they were around 22 years old,” said Atique.

Atique studied science in junior college and then enrolled for a BSc degree in information technology. All the institutes she studied in were part of the same group as the deaf school.

In college, she met her best friend. Atique taught her sign language and her friend made it her personal mission to ensure that Atique scored well. “She made notes for me and became my interpreter,” Atique said. “It’s because of her that I cleared my exams.”

When their third-year results were declared, both were thrilled: the best friend stood second in class and Atique stood a close third.

Atique went on to work as a web developer for three years, and on Saturdays, volunteered as a teacher at her old deaf school. “I noticed that I felt happy and satisfied after teaching,” she said. “It became my passion. I also wanted to work with deaf students. So I left my job and became a teacher at my old school.”

After spending three years there, in July 2019 she joined TEACH, the Mumbai centre that provides higher education to deaf students, as a lecturer in English.

This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.

Publicly available data about India’s deaf population is hard to come by. The figures that are available vary widely. According to the 2011 census of India there were over five million deaf or hard of hearing, or DHH, persons in India. Meanwhile, a 2005 report by the World Health Organisation estimated that there were 63 million persons in India who had moderate to severe hearing loss. Presently, the website of the National Association of the Deaf estimates that there are 18 million deaf persons in India.

In his 2021 book A History of Deaf Education in India, senior Deaf activist Madan Vasishta noted that literacy among the deaf community was a major problem. While the overall literacy rate for India is above 70%, “at present, since only 5% DHH children are in school, the literacy rate for them can also be 5%, which is 1/15 of the general population”, he wrote.

He added, “This kind of stark statistic illustrates how behind in education DHH children have been since the first school was established in 1885. There are over 600 schools for the deaf in India now, but their combined enrollment is still less than 5% of total school-age deaf population.”

Further, he explained, deaf education in India “has been and still is controlled by a strong oral tradition. The attitude that ‘deaf people cannot do much’ is widely prevalent.”

Oralism wasn’t always the preferred approach to deaf education in the country. Vasistha observed that some of the earliest deaf schools in India in the late 1800s used sign languages or developed their own sign languages. But eventually, they all began adhering to oralism.

He argued that this was likely caused by an infamous event in international Deaf history – the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf, held in Milan, Italy in 1880. After several days of deliberation, the conference formally declared that oralism was a superior mode of education for integrating deaf persons into society, and passed a resolution calling for a ban on sign language.

In his book, Vasistha suggested that this move had worldwide repercussions, and likely influenced the direction of deaf education in India. Writing about the early days of India’s first deaf school, called the Bombay Institute for Deaf and Mutes, established in 1885, Vasistha noted that after struggling for more than a year to find a trained teacher for the deaf students, the school finally hired a man named TA Walsh, who had used sign language in his work in Irish and Belgian schools. He wrote, “Despite his background in using sign language, the first step he took upon arrival in the school was to stop all use of signs. It is very possible that the Milan resolutions had a strong influence on his decision.”

Further, he added, “This pattern of starting off using sign language and subsequently banning them when trained teachers from England or the USA arrived was repeated in other schools across India.”

In 1880, the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf declared that oralism was a superior mode of education, and called for a ban on sign language. The repurcussions of this move are felt even today.

A Right to Information application I filed in February of this year with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment requesting information about the population and literacy rates of deaf persons in India, along with the number of institutions that use Indian sign language as a medium of instruction was transferred to four different authorities and finally disposed of with no satisfactory responses.

But conversations with eight deaf students and educators suggested that deaf education in India continues to be dominated by oralism. “I’ve visited 40 deaf schools across India, and I saw teachers teaching children to say the same thing every day – like how do you say apple or orange,” signed Deaf activist Dr Alim Chandani on a video call through an interpreter, Surbhi Taneja. “There’s no development happening because they’re not teaching in ISL.”

Significant research has been conducted on the harms of an exclusively oral approach for deaf children. One paper, titled “Avoiding Linguistic Neglect of Deaf Children”, noted, “All children need regular and frequent exposure to an accessible language during the critical (or sensitive) period between birth and 3 or 4 years old or they risk linguistic deprivation – a biological state that interferes with the development of neurolinguistic structures in the brain and that appears to decrease gray matter in certain parts of the brain.”

It adds, “Linguistic deprivation inhibits fluency in any language and correlates with a range of poor cognitive and academic outcomes.”

Chandani estimated that only around 1% of deaf people benefited from oralism, typically because they had the resources to access intensive speech therapy. “Mostly only rich families can afford that, and middle class ones who are willing to pay,” he said. But even children from those families, he added, “will always be behind on social skills – in terms of confidence with their identity and being connected with people who can get 100% access to conversations.”

Atique believes it isn’t always the fault of parents, but society itself, which doesn’t inform hearing parents about the advantages of sign language for deaf children.

“Doctors are also at fault,” she said. “When a deaf baby is born, doctors recommend surgery and cochlear implants. They don’t tell the parents that they should learn ISL and go to a deaf school.”

As this video depicts, deaf children in India are often forced to speak and subjected to punishment for using sign language in schools. Further, the absence of sign language means that students are often unable to comprehend their lessons properly, which leaves them underprepared for higher education and employment.

Chandani learnt sign language only when he was 21 years old, but it changed his life completely. “It gave me more confidence and social skills,” he said. “I realised that it was important that all deaf people learn sign language when they’re born because it’s natural, it’s their native language.”

On January 26 I attended Republic Day celebrations at TEACH which holds classes in Sion, Mumbai.

In a brightly lit hall, students, alumni, staff, and parents assembled, dressed in their best Indian wear, in the colours of the Indian flag. Though usually a din emanates from crowds of assembled students, the left side of the hall, where they were seated, was silent – the students spoke animatedly through sign language. A murmur of conversation arose from the right side, where their parents were seated.

As the proceedings began, the gathering rose for the national anthem. But only some sang vocally; the rest signed using ISL. On a projection screen at the front of the hall, a video played, of Amitabh Bachchan accompanied by children with disabilities – the deaf among the children in the video signed the national anthem.

Republic Day celebrations underway at TEACH. The founders set up the centre, which focuses on non-oralist education, after realising that society was failing to educated and provide jobs for deaf individuals.

TEACH, which was set up in 2017, focuses on a non-oralist approach to educating its deaf students.

The founders’ inspiration traces to the early 2010s, when Sharma along with his co-founder Deepesh Nair, both then in their early twenties, began volunteering at a deaf school in Goregaon, Mumbai, while working at the financial services firm JP Morgan.

Sharma recounted that he was surprised to find a 14-year-old boy studying in Class 4 at that school. When he asked the teacher about it, she had no satisfactory reply for him.

A few years later while doing his MBA degree, it struck him that he didn’t have any deaf classmates. He decided to do his MBA project on deaf schools and interviewed parents and principals of deaf students and schools in Mumbai. “The majority of schools did not have any data on what deaf students were doing after the tenth standard,” he said. “Nobody showed accountability for the career of the child.”

These experiences motivated Sharma and Nair to set up TEACH, a charitable trust which provides comprehensive higher education to deaf students, enabling them to pursue aspirational careers of their own choice.

In 2022, the very first batch of TEACH students graduated – all 26 students went on to find jobs in various fields, such as accounting, human resources, and graphic design.

Among those who have benefited from the school’s approach is 22-year-old Sabah Sayyad, a promising young student with a cheerful and curious disposition, who is in the second year of her BCom degree.

Born to a widowed mother who worked as a domestic worker to raise her and her siblings, Sayyad and her family have seen more than their fair share of struggles in life. “Only I know how I raised them,” said Sabah’s mother Naseem, whom I met at the centre in early February. “I used to earn Rs 750 a month, which is not enough to run a household. I would do extra work where people paid me with food instead of money.”

Naseem’s financial struggles kept her so busy that for some years, she didn’t realise Sayyad was deaf. It was only after six months in nursery school, when Sayyad was four years old, that the class teacher noticed that she did not respond to sound, and asked Naseem to get her tested for deafness. Naseem took her to a special school in Juhu where, after inspecting Sayyad, they told her she was deaf. “I cried a lot then, why did this happen to me?” said Naseem. She explained that her older daughter, who is four years older than Sayyad, is also deaf.

Naseem admitted Sayyad and her sister to a deaf school in Juhu – she couldn’t afford the fees, so her employers paid for her. The school administration was very supportive of Naseem. “They were so helpful, they helped out with uniforms and even food when we didn’t have enough to eat,” she said. “They have helped me more than my own relatives.”

Naseem was protective of her daughters and dropped them to school daily. “I was worried that something might happen to them,” she said. However, the school staff and her employers convinced Naseem to let them travel by a school van.

While Naseem was happy with the school, Sayyad revealed in a private interview that its focus was on oralism.

“The teachers didn’t know sign language,” she signed, interpreted by Lalita Malwankar, who teaches at TEACH. “It was compulsory for us to speak and we were hit if we used sign language.”

I asked Sayyad how the students communicated with each other, to which she replied, “In school we used sign language hiding from others. If the teacher saw us, then we spoke or wrote things down.”

She recounted that there was one teacher, who taught mathematics using sign language, and was very supportive of the students. Sayyad understood his class well – but other teachers expected students to lip read, making their classes harder to follow. Sayyad added that after struggling initially, she adapted to this challenge, and was able to follow those classes also.

When Sayyad finished Class 10, a friend suggested TEACH to her mother for further education. Naseem was eager to get Sayyad educated, especially because her older daughter had been married early and faced problems in her marital home. “One daughter’s life is that way,” she said. “I just want my other daughter to stand on her own two feet in life.”

Sayyad visited TEACH with her friends, and was impressed by a teacher who used sign language to communicate with them. “In school, everything was oral, but here it was in ISL and I felt good about it,” she said. “In school, if they focused less on oral skills and used ISL instead, then maybe kids would be more interested in their studies.”

For a few years, Sabah Sayyad’s mother was so busy making ends meet that she did not realise her daughter was deaf. At her first deaf school, students were forced to speak and warned against using sign language.

She joined TEACH in 2019. For a year, she underwent a preparatory programme that the centre runs for incoming students to junior college, to compensate for the fact that deaf children are not usually educated up to the same level as their hearing counterparts. Sana Sheikh, who serves as the academic supervisor of TEACH, explained that several students studied in a vernacular medium in deaf schools and so also had to be taught English in the preparatory course. “We have to teach them from scratch, like ‘a’ for apple and ‘b’ for bat,” she said. She added that the centre also teaches ISL to many students, who join without knowledge of it.

After Sayyad finishes her education, she wants to work. “I want to improve my skills in MS Excel, accounting and fine arts,” she said. “I would like to work in human resources for a company.”

Many deaf persons to whom Scroll spoke explained that there was often a sense of shame attached to sign language. Sayyad recalled that her mother used to tell her sister and her not to use sign language in public, so as to not draw attention to themselves. “Strangers used to come and ask my mother, why are your girls deaf?” she said. “And she used to feel bad about it.” She noted that some people would assume that deaf people suffered from psychological ailments, and would “make fun of us, or not interact with us.”

Many deaf individuals told Scroll that family members often don’t learn sign language. This keeps communication between deaf and hearing family members to bare basics, leaving little room for deep dialogue.

Ben Joseph, an alumnus of TEACH, who currently works as a brand designer, recounted that his mother used to use ISL, but that as she grew older, her use of it decreased. His older sister learnt it and used it with him, but she moved out of their house after getting married. Meanwhile, his younger brother and father only use it a little. “I mostly use my voice to communicate at home,” he signed, interpreted by Malwankar. “Often, when my mom and brother speak to each other, I keep looking on without understanding what they are saying.”

But Joseph was more fortunate than many other deaf students – in the deaf school he attended in Dadar, Mumbai, classes were held in ISL and speech, and only a few teachers did not know ISL. “All the new ones did,” he said. And so, his schooling went by smoothly, as did his time at TEACH. Today, he said, he is happy at work, and has taught ISL to some of his colleagues.

Ben Joseph recounted feeling isolated during family conversations. But Joseph is among those who had a positive schooling experience. He recounted that only a few of his teachers did not know sign language.

Others feel a far greater sense of isolation. “When we go for family functions, everyone present doesn’t know ISL, so we are left out of conversations and aren’t able to understand what is going on,” Sayyad said. “I feel disrespected, I too deserve respect as a human being.”

Some deaf persons opt to use devices that help them hear. In fact, as Malwankar noted, in most deaf schools in India, it is compulsory to wear hearing aids.

But such rules belie the fact that not everyone finds the devices helpful. For instance, Atique used to wear hearing aids in school and at home, but would take them out whenever she could.

“I could only hear repetitive sounds, like ‘aa, aa, aa’, it was annoying,” she said. “By the time I was in Class 12, I stopped wearing them completely.”

According to Panda, hearing aids do not help all deaf children. “We must not force deaf children to wear hearing aids,” he said. “If people have trouble with their eyesight, and we give them the wrong glasses that do not really help them to see clearly, and instead cause them a headache, we would not expect them to keep wearing these glasses. It is the same with hearing aids.”

He added, “Deaf people can decide whether they want to wear them, and if they get any benefit. In any case, hearing aids do not on their own help integration with society.”

Similarly, Chandani explained over email that though not every deaf child would benefit from using hearing aids, “every deaf child can benefit from gaining a full language, which is sign language, and would be able to communicate and express themselves freely.”

Dr Alim Chandani, a Deaf activist, noted that while not every deaf child would benefit from using hearing aids, every deaf child would benefit from learning sign language. Photo: Special arrangement

In Deaf Around the World, a compendium about Deaf communities and sign language by activists and scholars, published in 2010, Dr Madan Vasishta noted that, though the preceding decade had seen a wider spread of hearing aids, “my personal communication with many school principals indicates that use of hearing aids is severely limited due to the poor quality of Indian-made devices. Imported hearing aids cost several times more than those manufactured in India, and only a fraction of the population can afford them.”

Since the early 1980s, cochlear implants have become popular among the deaf community worldwide. While hearing aids amplify sounds, cochlear implants “directly stimulate the auditory nerve and provide a sense of sound to a deaf person.” The device has an external portion which sits behind the ear, and an internal portion placed under the skin. In India, their prohibitive cost, starting from Rs 6 lakh, make the implants difficult to access for most sections of society without government support.

The media often represents cochlear implants as “cures” that will “unmute” deaf people and restore their hearing to “normal”. However, as the website of the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of Speech and Hearing Disabilities notes, “a cochlear implant does not restore normal hearing. It is a communication tool but not a ‘cure’ for deafness.” It also notes that a deaf person requires substantial therapy to be able to recognise and distinguish sounds.

Many deaf people argue that devices, like cochlear implants, are not “cures” for deafness, but communication tools. They maintain that they can best communicate and express themselves through sign language.

Chandani agreed that a cochlear implant was a tool, and noted that Indian Sign Language “is the gateway to provide early language acquisition skills to all deaf children.”

Alarmingly, in India, medical anthropologist Michele Friedner has observed, deaf children are receiving cochlear implants which are “obsolete or have never been used in developed countries”, and which lack features such as noise cancellation, which are crucial in noisy environments.

But hearing devices remain a key area of policy focus for the Indian government. In the country, individuals with a minimum of 40% hearing loss, and with a family income of less than Rs 20,000 per month can apply for government assistance for hearing aids, assistive devices and cochlear implants under the Scheme of Assistance to Disabled Persons.

In contrast, activists noted, no comprehensive policy or guidelines exist with regard to the Indian Sign Language.

This is not to say that sign language finds no mention at all in government policy. The 2020 National Education Policy states that the National Institute of Open Schooling “will develop high-quality modules to teach Indian Sign Language, and to teach other basic subjects using Indian Sign Language.” It further stated that ISL will be “standardized across the country, and National and State curriculum materials developed, for use by students with hearing impairment. Local sign languages will be respected and taught as well, where possible and relevant.” In September 2022, the Prime Minister announced that sign language would be included as a subject in school curricula.

“People are saying that the NEP includes ISL, but it’s not clear, it’s quite vague,” said Chandani. He noted that significant funds had been invested into translating primary school books into ISL, in the video format, but said that such efforts were insufficient. “They need a teacher to come in who will teach in the bilingual method: English, Hindi or their mother tongue, and ISL,” he said.

Meanwhile, Panda argued in a column that deaf education needed a separate, focused policy.

“I wish there was a specific NEP for Deaf people instead of the mainstream one,” he wrote. “NEP 2020 will deal with thousands of issues in education reform. Deaf education reform should have found a place there.”

He presented a vision of such a reform, which involved creating “thousands of deaf professionals who can work in deaf education”. Alongside, he said, students needed “quality educational materials in sign language and innovations in teaching and learning. A reform that can work has to take these elements together and combine them into new ecosystems of learning for deaf children and youth.”

Chandani further noted that the only state where he had seen progress with promoting and disseminating ISL was Haryana. There, he noted, the Haryana Welfare Society for Persons with Speech and Hearing Impairment runs eight centres for which it has hired deaf teachers, assistants, artists and support staff. He added that the society has also developed ISL textbooks, in video formats, the first of their kind in the country. The society has also enlisted ISL experts to teach the language in schools and offers free ISL lessons for parents. “This is the only state which is really providing opportunities for deaf children, and also for deaf people to get jobs,” he added.

In a paper on stigma and the value of sign language among Deaf adults in Kerala, Friedner suggested that ensuring such a proliferation of sign language would be the most powerful way to support the deaf community. “For sign language-using deaf young adults, cure might mean allowing sign language and its users to proliferate; cure means contagion and transmission,” she wrote. “For ISL-using young adults, sign language is also contagious, and so early exposure inoculates against oralist ideologies.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.