Indian Sign language (ISL) is set to receive a boost as an Indian sign language dictionary of 10,000 words was recently released by PM Modi. “The Dictionary along with NCERT textbooks in ISL accessible teaching-learning resources will benefit special needs students, their teachers, parents and even the general population who would like to learn a new language like ISL. These resources will also promote the use of Indian Sign Language across the country, and thereby give an impetus to inclusive education,” says Sharita Sharma, assistant professor, Sign Language Linguistics, Department of Linguistics at Central University of Rajasthan (CURAJ) who is currently a member of Government’s NEP (2020) Task Force Committee for Standardization of Indian Sign Language, Ministry of Education (MoE).
What is ISL
Indian Sign Language is not only a means of communication for the hearing-impaired, but a is a symbol of their pride and identity. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act 2016 which came into force from April 19, 2017, recognises sign language as a means of communication which is especially useful for communication with persons with hearing disability. The Act further mandates governments to promote use of sign language to enable persons with hearing disability to participate and contribute to their community and society.
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“But it would be inappropriate to assume that a sign language is only for the hearing impaired as it can be used by everyone for making our societies more inclusive and accessible. The ISL has incrementally evolved from 4000 words to 10000 words and evolved the purpose of wider implementation,” says Gaurav Raheja, professor & head, Department of Architecture & Planning and professor in-charge, Inclusion and Accessibility Services, IIT Roorkee where he is also engaged in the management of a school called Anushruti Academy for the Deaf.
Raheja adds that the ISL has been developed through contextual research and purpose suiting the Indian landscape. The other well-known formats of sign language include American Sign Language, which uses a single hand system and the British Sign language, which uses a two hand system much like the Indian sign language. “The priority of words or vocabulary chosen for India by the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC) are well defined and ranges between words for everyday use with representation from diverse regional contexts of India (like Bihar, Uttarakhand, etc) to a range of legal terms,” Raheja explains.
Preparing the ISL Dictionary was no mean task and one that involved “following the good practices of lexicography (process of dictionary making) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) — where a set of principles provide teachers with a structure to develop instructions to meet the diverse needs of all learners. “It is at par with most western sign language dictionaries and has been created by both hearing impaired and hearing staff,” Sharma says.
Elaborating further on the efficacy of such a dictionary, V Srinivasa Chakravarthy, professor at IIT Madras, says, “Apart from enriching the vocabulary of special needs children and empowering them to communicate their thoughts efficiently to the rest of the world, such a dictionary gives a common ‘meaning to a visual gesture’ for communication amongst people. This is especially important when students move from different schools to colleges for higher education,” says Chakravarthy, who in collaboration with Sunil Kopparapu from TCS, has come up with Mudrabharati, a fingerspelling system for ISL that is based on the phonetic similarity among the major Indic scripts. A project associate in the team, Amal Jude Ashwin, has developed an AI-based system that can convert the video of a signer signing Mudrabharati into running text.
“A digital dictionary that plays the video of the sign and explains its meaning will be better than the conventional paper based one. Another desirable development is creation of an AI based tool that can convert 10,000 signs in the new ISL dictionary into words and offer that tool as a mobile app. After all, it is not easy for a person to look up a hardcopy of 10,000 symbols,” Chakravarthy says.
In terms of the Dictionary’s wider dissemination, Sharma explains it is freely available in Open Source platforms such as Youtube and DIKSHA. While most schools for specially abled students have access to these resources, in the pandemic, the education of special needs children did suffer due to the digital and socio-economic divide with physical classes on a pause. Sharma calls for a dictionary app to be made available to all the schools for special needs students, while the government too can distribute dictionary pre-loaded digital tablets or smart phones, so that those without access or means are not left behind.
Are faculty equipped
Since the last few years, several schools have made efforts to include qualified teachers with hearing impairment to teach special needs children. The schools have also recruited ISL interpreters to assist in the teaching-learning process. “Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) has introduced teacher training courses such as Diploma in Teaching Indian Sign Language (DTISL) which is exclusively for hearing impaired students. The BEd Special Education course of RCI has also made changes in its curriculum to include modules of ISL. The existing teachers have been provided training in Indian Sign Language by the government and other organisations, Sharma says.