The quest to formalise Indian Sign Language is gaining momentum

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  • Despite being home to around 5 million people with hearing disabilities, India still doesn’t have a formally recognised sign language under its Constitution.
  • The Delhi High Court is currently deliberating a public interest litigation to recognise Indian Sign Language (ISL) as one of India’s 22 official languages.
  • In March 2018, New Delhi’s Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre, which was set up by the central government in 2015, launched the first ever dictionary for ISL.

Despite having one of the largest populations of deaf or hearing-impaired people in the world - at around 5 million people according to the 2011 Census - India still doesn’t have a formally recognised system of sign language to call its own.

This is unfortunate. The prevailing sign languages, American Sign Language and British Sign Language, while globally applicable, are not attuned to the cultural nuances, body language cues or grammar of the Hindi-speaking populace.

However, this is hopefully set to change. The Delhi High Court is currently deliberating a public interest litigation to recognise Indian Sign Language (ISL) as one of India’s 22 official languages. In fact, it submitted the matter for the consideration of the central government in September.

The petition, which was filed by Nipun Malhotra, a disabled person, is part of a wider movement to secure the rights of hearing-impaired and disabled people in India. If Indian Sign Language is recognised as an official language, it will ensure the rights of people using the language — especially as they interact with the outside world. This involves anything from getting a driver’s license or applying for a job.

Barring the HC petition, Indian Sign Language is also slowly gaining traction due to the efforts of New Delhi’s Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre. The institution, which was set up by the central government in 2015, launched the first ever dictionary for ISL in March 2018, codifying five different categories of words - legal, academic, colloquial, medical and technical - into one document. There were about 3,000 words covered in all.

The centre is also working on solving a nagging problem - the scarcity of ISL interpreters. It is offering training courses on ISLin this regard. In January 2017, PRI, a think tank, estimated that there were only 250 certified sign language interpreters in India.
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