WHEN I first started working almost 30 years ago in an NGO in Rajasthan, I was associated with a group of weavers from the Meghwal community, helping them revive and adapt their traditional craft. I became very close to them and they to me, and for months we would live and work together.

With help from others, I did everything in my power to help them rebuild their livelihoods, their craft, their skills, their marketing, their aspirations, and while I did this, they took me under their wing, fed me, showed me their world, and would ‘protect’ me from all the hardships of living in the desert, of travelling in broken-down trucks, and eating and drinking in small forgotten desert festivals.

The one thing they could not protect me from, and where I had no answer for them, was when they were sometimes quite brutally treated as untouchables, as people whose very presence caused offence.

Ugliness of ‘untouchability’

The first instance I remember is when we went to get a cold lassi near the bus stand at Pokhran after a long trip back from Barmer. We were all hot and parched after the long dusty trip, and when we entered the little ‘hotel’ the owner came out full of abuse and anger, insulting us, livid that we were trying to defile him. Who did we think we were, how did we have the audacity to enter his hotel, we should remain where we were meant to be. There was a little violence, and as people began to gather, and it threatened to get ugly, we withdrew.

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Tarun Sarwal (centre with beard) with group of weavers and members of the NGO in Rajasthan he worked for 30 years ago

In the silence, as we walked back to the Sansthan, I could feel they were first embarrassed about me having to witness what I did, to be a part of it, somehow. But later, sitting together in the courtyard, some started to vent their anger, some wanted to get back at the owner, others were resigned, some made light of the event. But the predominant unspoken desire of the group was to be able to go back to that same hotel, at some time in the future, and be welcomed, even begged, to come in and be served the coldest, sweetest lassi by the same hotel owner.

Freedom to speak up

This was just a small incident, but their ‘untouchability’ affected every aspect of their life chances. The weavers had no voice. They were only expected to listen, to be grateful, their opinions didn’t, couldn’t count. This even spread to people within the NGO that was supporting them. Associated with the weavers as I was, I felt the full force of that ostracism, that continuing and engaged campaign to keep them in their place. Before I left, I did what was received as a revolutionary act, to give them their freedom both financially and physically from the NGO, so they could establish their own institution and run it as they wanted.

People are more than capable of looking after themselves, of finding their way – it is their suppression of their voice, and of their choices that condemns them to poverty. I have had the opportunity to work in four continents since then and seen how in different contexts people are rendered voiceless, how they don’t speak out of fear, how no one listens to what they have to say.

This article interpreted in Indian sign language

There are 101 ways in which people are rendered mute.  It might be conflict, it might be prejudice, it might be social institutions. But always, whether the voicelessness is within a family, within a community, within a region or a country, the key to freeing those who face being part of a permanent underclass has been to enable voice.

The deaf and hard of hearing

I came back to India briefly on a project to catalyse innovation in the disability space, and although I had some idea of how persons with disability were voiceless in our society, the extent and the depth of it took me by surprise.

Deafness is typically viewed as a medical condition, as it undoubtedly is, but the failure to accept and address the needs of a person when that condition is permanent, is a failure that condemns most deaf to a life of isolation.

Almost all deaf children in India grow up in an environment where there is no communication. They remain isolated in their own homes as in most cases parents do not learn sign language. Very few children make it to deaf schools where they can acquire sign language. Teachers in inclusive schools do not use sign language and fellow students do not know how to interact with them. As a result, 88% of the deaf population in India is illiterate as they have been unable to acquire a language. The problem only gets worse when they try to become independent and earn a livelihood.

An invisible disability

Without access to any language through script, and little or no impetus of the hearing population to learn sign language, the deaf literally do not have any voice in the mainstream world. The fact that their disability goes unnoticed – and that they have no means of communication – makes the 18 million deaf and hard of hearing completely invisible. I have stood up in conferences with over 200 in attendance and asked people with a deaf friend to raise their hands. You see heads turning as people look at each other, but not one hand going up.

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Interpretation call in progress between a deaf person and a hearing person via a SignAble interpreter

As part of a programme called the Enable Makeathon to develop assistive technology for persons with disability in India, we came across Marko, a deaf person from Finland. He had developed a mobile based app that connected deaf people with interpreters immediately. When he took his product to a group of deaf persons at APD (Association of People with Disability) they were so incredibly happy to see this solution and test it out they just couldn’t stop signing to each other and laughing.

It was clear in five minutes in that room that in the hands of the deaf, access to an Indian Sign Language interpreter when and where they needed one would have a dramatic impact on their lives.

Communication is key

Unfortunately, the different business model and some IP issues would not allow Marko to take forward his project here. But after the dust had settled around the Makeathon, my ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) colleague Manas Tiwari and I decided to take up the challenge.

Our first employee was Rupmani Chhetri, herself deaf and an inspiration for deaf people, especially women and girls. She helped us understand the deaf community and we had to learn sign language. Through her we’ve built up a company that has created the technology to make Indian sign language (ISL) available over the mobile phone and on the desktop. On our app or at the click of a button on our browser-based solution, an ISL interpreter becomes instantly available.

We have a long way to go, on developing our technology and on scaling the offering, but over 10,000 deaf people have downloaded our app and our network of interpreters interpret anywhere between 600-1,200 calls a day.  Amazon, which employs over 2,000 deaf people, uses the service to facilitate conversations between their hearing and deaf/ speech and hearing impaired colleagues on a 24*7 basis in five languages!

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Part of our SignAble team of interpreters and deaf customer support  

But as our interpreters sign and interpret, and we see the deaf connecting to medical services, their families and reaching out for commercial services that we take for granted, we see them take back control over their lives through their voice.

We hear stories of how for the first time in her life a deaf woman is able to have a full conversation with her mum to tell her that she has had a baby and that she is well. Of people calling from a train station to try and find a seat, of people ordering food on an app, and then hundreds of people interviewing for jobs.

Our app is available on the Google Play Store, but if you are hearing and/or reading this, why don’t you go to our YouTube channel and learn some sign words directly from Rupmani?


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