When the UN General Assembly declared 23 September as the International Day of Sign Languages (IDSL), their objective is to raise awareness on sign languages and strengthen their status of sign languages. There is a long way to go in Goa as sign language is yet to gain importance. However, it is noteworthy that the batch of 2021 in the Indian sign language interpretation course at the National Institute of Speech and Hearing Disabilities, Mumbai had only seven students, yet two students were from Goa, Josefina Fernandes and Muskan Shaikh. Josefina Fernandes was also a gold medallist which makes them the only two professional sign language interpreters in the State. Now, imagine talking a language and only two people can understand you.
“There is no much awareness about sign language in Goa and signalling is often stigmatised which makes it even more difficult for the child to voice out their feelings. Their needs cannot be expressed and there is a communication gap. That is where an interpreter plays an important role. Social skills are based on how you pick up the language. The hearing impaired community need to be given equal opportunities. This can happen only when acceptance will take place on skill development. Without the right educational background and a hold on the language, one will not get a good job and scale higher in life,” says Josefina Fernandes, from Bicholim, who has been working with children and youth who are hearing impaired.
When a child is born, the initial tests are conducted to check for responses. As they grown up, there are different milestones to check their development. With advancement in medicine and technology, many children receive cochlear implants which help in the amplification of sound but if there is nerve damage, the child has to rely on sign language.
Muskan Shaikh from Margao completed her graduation in BA before pursuing her DEd in special education in Hearing Impairment from Pune. She also completed Community Based Inclusive Development (CBID), which is a new course introduced in India by RCI with affiliation with Melbourne University, Australia. After completing the Indian Sign Language (ISL) course, she is now working as a freelancer.
“We need to create awareness of using sign language. It is just like learning a new language. There are very few educational opportunities and lack of higher education opportunities after Class 12. There are not more than four ISL interprets in Goa and it becomes very difficult for the deaf community to get their work done. They have to look for an interpreter for any governmental/official works. There should be provision for interpreter wherever needed. If proper training is given to deaf children at a very early stage, they may understand things and concepts better. It is mostly seen that deaf individuals who have deaf parents develop better overall and learn sign language and other languages better as their base language was strongly developed, as they got inputs from their environment that is their parents. But if you see a setup, where the parents are hearing but the child is born deaf, he/she has a lot of communication issues,” says Muskan.
In Goa, the hearing impaired can study only up to the higher secondary level as colleges don’t have syllabus and faculty that is hearing impaired friendly. However, breaking these barriers, 24 year-old Rahul Kunkolienkar from Mangueshi, Ponda, researched about education in India for the hearing impaired and enrolled himself for various courses at Indore Deaf Bilingual Academy (IDBA) in Madhya Pradesh. He is the only deaf individual from Goa who is highly qualified with a Bachelor’s degree in Arts, a Diploma in Computer Application, and a Diploma in Teaching Indian Sign Language. He is currently pursuing BEd in Special Education at the same institute.
With the help of Josefina Fernandes, who interprets Kunkolienkar emotions, he shares his journey, “I studied till my Class 12 at Lokvishwas Pratishthan’s Special School, Ponda, where we were six students in the class. I always wanted to study further and my teachers were very encouraging. There are many cities in India which offer courses but I preferred Indore. The institute offers various courses and the students are like minded and empowering,” he communicates in sign language.
He further adds, “Sign Language is very important for the deaf. It is the sole and best method of communication for deaf kids. It gives you a sense of independence knowing that you have some sort of language to communicate with people. It helps in expressing emotions. It is important to learn Indian Sign Language so that you can communicate with more and more deaf people from the community and educate them.”
As the only professional deaf Indian Sign Language teacher in Goa, he plans to return to Goa and teach students. He is also a member of the Goa Association for the Deaf and a part of the programs conducted by the association in Goa but he needs interpreters like Josefina with him to do the sessions for those who can hear. He uploads videos on his Instagram handle, Rahul Kunkolienkar, on various issues faced by the hearing impaired community. He has two wheeler license and plans to apply for a four wheeler license when he visits Goa next. With apps, communication is made even simpler for this young boy.
“I use Youtube very frequently because there are many associations and institutes that upload videos which are very interesting and educative. I also use the Deaf Enabled Foundation (DEF) and I also type and show the people what I want or where I want to go to. I book my own tickets online for travelling,” he informs.
As a member of the state advisory board on disability, Prakash Kamat, works very closely with the hearing impaired community. “There is a community of over 3000 fully or partially hearing and speech impaired individuals in Goa. Yet, this community is excluded from society as people are not sensitized. They are excluded from day-to-day routines and are not given any opportunities. When a government job is opened for the disabled, the job is given to someone who is physically disabled but not for the hearing or speech impaired as the interviewers on the panel don’t know sign language,” he informs.
To conclude, Rahul Kunkolienkar wants to advise deaf students to be confident and not to lose hope, to keep focused on studies, try learning new things every day, be self-sufficient and take up hobbies. And not be afraid of trying new things and also to keep interacting with deaf community.