The eyes hear and the hands speak
Arjun Shrestha is seated at a café with his wife Jamuna. His eyes take in everything: leaves swaying quietly in the breeze, a waiter shuffling past with a food tray, a sparrow alighting on a nearby chair.
Arjun, 38, has been deaf from birth. He moved to Pokhara from Syangja for better schooling opportunities, where Arjun began his formal education at the age of six at Srijana Secondary School for the Deaf in Pokhara.
No one in his family knew Sign language. He used to communicate with his siblings in home sign, and eventually with everyone through written communication.
All was well in school, he was making friends, learning and growing, but Srijana Secondary at the time had no provision for SLC. A hearing school helped him out, but again in intermediate level of the hearing college he did not have a sign language interpreter.
In 2002, Arjun returned to Srijana Secondary as a teacher where he taught students like himself Sign language and English.
“My aim was always to help improve educational opportunities for the deaf and hard of hearing, and working directly with children was a great start,” Arjun signs through interpreter Akriti Neupane.
In 2011, he was offered a scholarship to study BA in Deaf Education and Linguistics at Gallaudet University in Washington DC, where he realised how much more needed to be done for deaf education back home.
“When education programs for the deaf began in Nepal, we did not have a Sign language, and included fingerspelling system at the initial stage,” Arjun continues.
The first-ever Nepali Sign language dictionary was produced in 1989 bythe Welfare Society for the hard of hearing with coordination of the Kathmandu Association of the Deaf (KAD) with the support of Peace Corps. KAD was formed in 1980 but before this period, deaf organization formed in 1975 in Bhairawa was the first association of any kind in Nepal led and managed by people with disabilities themselves.
The National Federation of the Deaf was established in 1996 and joined the World Federation of Deaf. A year later, Nepal Television began broadcasting news in Sign language every Saturday.
The first deaf school, however, was established 56 years earlier as the ‘School for Deaf Children, Kathmandu’ in Naxal. After that, three deaf schools of the same name were set up in Surkhet, Bhairawa, and Saptari. The school in Kathmandu was later renamed ‘Central Deaf Higher Secondary School’ where classes till the Bachelor level are held today.
When Shrestha came back to Nepal from the US, he supported the Deaf community and deaf schools by working in the development of bilingual education for deaf children, their leadership skills, advocacy, and setting up his own company to teach students languages and literacy skills. The feedback was positive, with children coming in to learn Sign language, English and writing, but Shrestha wanted to do more.
Around this time, he attended a program in Sindhuli organised by the Deaf Federation, where he met Jamuna Dahal who had lost her hearing after falling down three storeys when she was just nine-months-old.
“I thought he was very handsome,” signs Jamuna, smiling and the couple look at each other brimming with a resonant joy. “We became close friends, and were together for almost a year when we got married. ”
Jamuna herself was with the Lalitpur Deaf Association. Also an accomplished artist, she hand-makes belts, hair-bands, and gives training to others in the community.
Meanwhile, Shrestha received the Chevening Scholarship in 2018 and went to University College London where he received an MSc in Language Sciences, on Sign language and Deaf Studies a year later.
“I enjoyed learning how different British Sign language (BSL) is from Nepali Sigh Language (NSL) when I was working on my thesis,” laughs Shrestha, who is fluent in different Sign languages, including the BSL and American Sign language (ASL)
There are over 200 sign languages in the world but the exact number is likely more. Each country often has its own version, and about five percent of 70 million deaf people in world have access to sign language education.
Back once more in Nepal, he worked at the National Federation of the Deafto support development of deaf education program such as a new app that makes video materials for Sign language education.
Shrestha’s current PhD linguistics research focuses on the morphology of NSL, looking into the formation and inflection of words and studying how the smallest units of meaning combine to form components in the language.
Communication is core to any language, yet Nepal’s Act Relating to Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2017 does not explicitly mention Sign languages. It defines ‘language’ to include all forms of spoken, non-spoken and Sign languages.
The Act also has provisions to educate people with disabilities through more than one medium, which includes braille and Sign language, and to provide interpreter service to the persons who are deaf and who have sight and hearing disabilities.
There is not enough budget for NSL interpreters, and even in families with a deaf member, other members do not have enough knowledge of Sign language to communicate.
The government’s policy update that mandates a teaching license has unfair provisions for deaf and hard of hearing teachers, especially as hearing teachers are not required to have Sign language qualifications to teach deaf students.
“The government should give space and importance to Sign language and promote it culturally. We should conduct more research in the development of the language and train teachers and interpreters,” he signed during a recent interview before he left for the University of Birmingham where he is working on a PhD in Sign language Linguistics and Morphology, the first person from Nepal’s deaf community.
‘An MSc is not enough,’ Shrestha wrote from Birmingham. ‘My project team and supervisors – all hearing – have different Sign languages between them and use trans-languages in our communication. It is challenging but I am also enjoying my new experience.’
From a quiet place
Hearing impairment is a condition that prevents reception of sound in all or most of its forms. A hearing loss of up to 20 decibels (dB) below the hearing threshold is still considered to be normal hearing. However, hearing loss of more than 40dB is classified as a hearing impairment.
Moderate hearing loss is between 40 and 60dB and severe is between 60 and 80dB, while more than 80dB is considered profound hearing loss or complete deafness.
The 2011 census estimated that 80,000 Nepalis were deaf or hard of hearing, but K P Adhikari of the National Federation of the Deaf Nepal (NDFN) believes the number is higher.
“As hearing loss is an invisible condition, one cannot immediately tell if an individual is deaf or hard of hearing,” he says, “many people are left out in the census. The figure is closer to 300,000.”
This would mean 1% of Nepalis have hearing impairment. Hearing loss can be congenital, or may result from severe illness or accidents.
“If someone is deaf by birth, it is also most likely that they are unable to speak,” says Adhikari. “In other cases, an individual may be able to make sounds but this doesn’t mean they will be able to speak.”
As children learn to form words and speak by imitation, he adds, an absence of hearing almost always means an absence of speech as well.
“There are options for speech therapy abroad, but this is expensive to bring to Nepal,” he explains.
Sarah Giri (pictured) is an advocate for deaf rights, recounts that in many cases hearing impairment is seen as something to be “fixed”, leading to a dehumanising experience for the deaf and hard of hearing.
“Sure, to certain extent, therapy can help children lip-read, but that alone is not helpful, and the same goes for cochlear implants,” she adds. “True communication can happen only with Sign language.”
Giri, who identifies as culturally Deaf, is fluent in Nepali, Indian and American Sign languages.
It was a challenge at first, she recalls, especially to train one’s eyes to read the gestures, curves and angles. “To sign was not as difficult, but to become an expert reader of what is written in space, you do not get a second chance to read again, unless of course you ask the signer to repeat what they just expressed.”
The worlds of the deaf and the hearing are far apart, but it can be broken by learning Sign language.
“It is only a different mode of communication, but the government calls people who are deaf or hard of hearing disabled while there is nothing disabled about them. If we take the trouble to learn so many foreign languages, why not try a Sign language?” asks Giri, whose Deaf Art and Culture Society is working on leading Sign language learning in the Valley.
The popular system of language and communication which relies on sounds and words caters disproportionately to the convenience of the hearing, since they form the majority. But this is all the more reason why Sign language is important. The NDFN has produced a Sign language dictionary with about 5,000 entries, and also trains interpreters.
The NDFN trained 20 people last year, and another 16 beginners-level interpreters before local elections. It is developing a syllabus and aims to have one interpreter in every local government unit.
Giri adds that when there is no platform to communicate or express, it invites isolation in the world of the deaf.
“Helen Keller said blindness separates people from things, deafness separates people from people,” says Giri. “But if you think about it, signs are not so different from how we use sound to talk. They are just different because in the world of the deaf, the eyes hear, and the hands speak.”
Read more: Hearing for the deaf, seeing for the blind, Sewa Bhattarai