Reflections on the debates around the RPWD Bill 2014: The role of deaf people
By Michele Friedner
I write these reflections as a deaf American anthropologist who lived in Chennai from March 2013 until April 2014. These reflections are informed by conversations with deaf friends in Bangalore, Chennai, and Delhi, visits to deaf organizations in Chennai, watching videos and announcements put out by the Delhi-based National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and closely following deaf peoples’ social media discussions about the RPWD bill. It seemed to me that while deaf people were “represented” by having a deaf person on the drafting committee and by the fact that the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) worked closely with the Disability Rights Group (DRG), deaf issues and concerns were not foregrounded in the proposed bill nor in the contention afterwards.
By all accounts, the NAD worked closely with those drafting the various versions of the new bill and there was a deaf representative on the original drafting committee, after protest by deaf people. What was most interesting to me was that while many disability groups and individuals mobilized against the bill in the aftermath of realizing that the bill presented to the state was different than the one that the was originally drafted, the NAD did not change its positive perspective at all. Indeed, as a result of the NAD’s involvement in DRG, there was massive deaf mobilization for the historic 3 February protests/vigil and deaf people came to Delhi from all over India. The NAD and its supporters heavily used social media to recruit people to come to Delhi, making polished videos in which they discussed the benefits of the new proposed law versus the old law. Their main points were that the new law actually mentioned Indian Sign Language and covered the provision of sign language interpreters – a huge step forward over the previous law, which did not mention sign language or interpreters at all. In addition, the new bill also mentioned closed captioning for television programming. NAD leaders also said that the new bill would result in more public sector employment for deaf and disabled people since the percentage allocated to disabled people was increasing from 3% to 5%.
Followers of the NAD also used social media to encourage their friends and colleagues to support the RPWD and those who raised concerns (which I will discuss further down) were labeled as traitors. The NAD was likened by some followers to being like Mahatma Gandhi and other Freedom Fighters while those who expressed some concern about the new bill were compared to Pakistan – hence, the mood surrounding the new bill was both very joyous (with the new bill representing freedom for India’s deaf people) and very tense (those who opposed the new bill were treated very poorly). Indeed, the NAD and its followers used very “black and white” discourses and there was no nuance in the discussions surrounding the bill and whether it was truly beneficial for deaf people.
However, there were a few deaf people who raised concerns about the bill. Namely, these people were concerned about the language utilized in the section of the bill on employment reservations as it appeared that the 1% allocated to deaf and hard of hearing people was going to be shared with speech impaired people – the preciseness of the category of “hearing impaired and speech impaired” was a source of much confusion. In addition, some detractors had concerns about the language of inclusion in the bill and what this language meant for separate deaf schools (which are extremely important to deaf people as a space for creating shared deaf experiences and teaching and learning Indian Sign Language). Indeed, most of my deaf friends have told me that they wanted separate deaf schools until the college or university level. In addition, deaf people were concerned about the lack of recognition of Indian Sign Language as a language in and of its own right and the way that it was lumped in the bill under the category of auxiliary aids and accommodations.
These concerns raised by detractors (most raised their concerns through You Tube videos which were also posted on Facebook and on Whatsapp groups) were quite substantial but it appeared that NAD leaders, who felt that the DRG would protect deaf peoples’ interests, brushed them aside. It seemed to me that DRG very much benefited from NAD’s support as deaf people comprised a substantial number of those protesting at India Gate on 3 February, 2014 and at subsequent protests and dharnas. Indeed, NAD played a very prominent role in trying to garner support and public attention for the new bill, going as far as to offer Rahul Gandhi a position as honorary NAD secretary (NAD seemed very much unaware of the political stakes of passing the bill in relation to the Congress Party’s reign). It often seemed to me that NAD followers functioned as foot soldiers in the fight for passing the bill and DRG’s leaders took advantage of the fact that deaf people are often more mobile than other disabled people.
However, as the proposed law became increasingly contentious and as more people from across the disability sector began to criticize the law, deaf people critical of the proposed bill became more visible in social media and they worked together with other critical disability groups to organize against the new proposed bill. Indeed, it seemed to me that these new partnerships that were formed – such as those formed by the Chennai and Hyderabad-based Deaf Enabled Foundation (DEF) with the Chennai-based Equals (it was not called Equals at the time) were particularly vibrant and exciting. Especially interesting to me was that DEF teachers and leaders set up Indian Sign Language classes in which disability leaders and activists learned sign language and worked together to collectively try to communicate on a more level playing field. In addition, Amba Salelkar of Inclusive Planet also played an important role in sharing information in an accessible way with deaf people critical of the law so that they could then share it with others in sign language. And as time went by, more and more deaf people began to detract from the NAD’s position and the political and social field of deaf organizations became fractured. Now there seem to be two main deaf constituencies: those still working with the DRG and those critical of DRG and desiring a major overhaul of the bill that is more friendly to deaf peoples’ desires and goals.
I also want to note that many of my deaf friends were extremely confused about whether to support the proposed new bill. They felt that they were not receiving understandable information and because of substantial educational barriers, they were unable to critically read and evaluate the old and new bills on their own. As such, they turned to social media and most of what they saw was impassioned speech making by NAD leaders and vitriolic attacks against those not supporting the bill: they saw very little detached analysis of the old and new bills. The All India Federation of the Deaf (AIFD), India’s older deaf association which is affiliated with the World Federation of the Deaf, did not take a position either for or against the proposed new bill which was also a source of confusion: there was no leadership exercised by this organization.In addition, deaf people were also confused by a signed video made by the World Federation of the Deaf’s president, Colin Allen, on January 30, 2013 in which Allen encouraged deaf Indians to fight to pass the new bill and to work closely with disabled peoples’ organizations in India. However, and unfortunately, Allen really did not seem to have any understanding of the subtleties of the Indian context and how the proposed bill might not actually be good for deaf Indians. Indeed, concern over the bill from a deaf perspective can also be said to mirror deaf peoples’ concerns about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People and whether it really has the interests of deaf people as a minority group at heart.
And, of course, my analysis above has focused exclusively on the experiences and perspectives of urban sign language-using deaf Indians. It is unknown to me what oral, late-deafened, or deaf-blind Indians think about the proposed bill as well as what their perception of the shortcomings of the old bill is. There has been very little coalition-building across diverse deaf and hard-of-hearing experiences and, traditionally, the AIFD and the NAD have focused their efforts on signing deaf people; they have argued that historically and in the present this constituency has been ignored and discriminated against and that employers favor oral deaf and hard-of-hearing people. In addition, the experiences of rural deaf and hard-of-hearing people have also been largely excluded from the signing public sphere of debates mentioned above. Neither the AIFD nor the NAD has done much work with rural deaf people and as we all know, disability rights advocacy has mostly been confined to urban areas. What to make of this and how can/should other diverse deaf perspectives be included?
While debates over the proposed bill has unleashed a great deal of animosity within India’s deaf worlds, it is also exciting to see deaf people thinking critically about what kinds of deaf futures they want: Do they want inclusive schools or separate ones? Should Indian Sign Language be recognized as a national language? Should the categories “deaf” or “Deaf” be in the new legislation and not “hearing impaired?” Can the contentious debate over the bill be said to have unleashed a broader awakening and political consciousness in India’s deaf community?
Michele Friedner is an assistant professor of health and rehabilitation sciences at Stony Brook University in New York, USA. She is a medical anthropologist who researches deaf and disabled peoples’ social, moral, and economic practices.
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