Humans acquire information throughout their lives, be it from the environment or via direct modes of communication like hearing and speech. So, what happens when a child experiences hearing loss during the early years of his life?
Once hearing impairment is detected, the children may receive a cochlear implant (tiny electronic device providing a sense of sound) or hearing aid. Next, parents face the task of introducing Sign Language as an alternative means of communication. Interestingly, children with congenital hearing loss are 95% of the time born to hearing parents, making it difficult for hearing parents to relate to their children to understand the importance of sign language.
Sign Language is a beautiful visual communication method, with unique hand signs for each word. Interestingly, Sign Language varies from country to country. New Zealand uses New Zealand Sign Language, which has similarities to Australian Sign Language (Auslan), while Sri Lankan Sign Language is similar to British sign language, possibly due to colonisation.
But why is Sign Language essential? Sign Language, the core of deaf culture, is the only way deaf individuals can communicate with the world and their community. It is a part of their identity, work, and play. Sign Language opens doors and helps them meet new people and opportunities.
Unfortunately, hearing-impaired children are usually five years or older by the time they are introduced to sign language, resulting in a massive lag in comprehension of language, especially since most of the language acquisition occurs between the ages of 1-5. Furthermore, some parents prefer that their children not learn Sign Language to fit in with the ways of traditional society. Sign Language was not a legally recognised language in New Zealand until 2006, and in the 1900s, people were even punished for using Sign Language as means of communication.
Today, however, deaf children in New Zealand have access to quality education, thanks to organisations like Ko Taku Reo, which ensure that education is delivered in a way that is specific to the children. Students are funded by the NZ government, where many services, from transport to interpreters, health care and even batteries for hearing aids, are provided free of charge. Interpreters are trained language specialists who translate everything spoken in English to sign language, and their services are available until the child completes his university education.
The situation in Sri Lanka, however, is vastly different. Even though Sri Lanka has a deaf population of 300,000, they continue to be marginalised due to a lack of opportunities. Sri Lankan Sign Language is not recognised as an official language, and the deaf community continue to struggle to access education, find employment, and even to have the right to get a driving licence.
The dozen or so interpreters Sri Lanka has are largely restricted to a few government organisations, making their services unavailable to those who need them. Perhaps what we can do as hearing people is to learn sign language, show empathy, and create awareness, so that even when the government fails the deaf community, we have done our part as members of society.
After all, how would you feel if you were not known to the world?
By Dr Yogya Ratnayake