Deaf Culture in India Today

Major Obstacles Persist Even as Awareness Improves

Indian woman gesturing

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India is one of the most populous countries in the world with over a billion people living in a geographic area roughly a third the size of the U.S. According to research from Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi, around 6.3 percent of the population (roughly 63 million people) have some level of functional hearing loss.

While deafness remains a major challenge for a country characterized by high levels of poverty—with 276 million people living below the state-prescribed poverty level—things are slowly changing thanks to increased public awareness and improved access to education and vocational training for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Deaf Culture in India

As a diverse country with many regional dialects, India has struggled to adopt an official, standardized sign language in the way that the U.S. did in the 1960s with American sign language (ASL).

While Indo-Pakistani sign language (IPSL) is considered the predominant type used in South Asia, there are numerous variations used within India (including Delhi sign language, Bombay sign language, Calcutta sign language, and Bangalore-Madras sign language), each with their own specific syntax and grammar.

Similarly, TV closed-captioning has lagged behind despite an impressive national viewership. Beyond the lack of investment in the technology, high levels of adult illiteracy (around 37.2 percent, according to UNICEF) have dampened efforts to extend these services to the general public. Moreover, only around two percent of deaf children in India attend school, further perpetuating a culture of illiteracy and low economic opportunity.

Further challenging the culture is the social and religious barriers that often directly or indirectly oppress the deaf. One such example is the Laws of Manu, one of the standard books of the Hindu canon, which states that persons who are deaf should not be allowed to own property but rather rely on the charities of others. While considered archaic by many modern-day Indians, such beliefs continue to feed an undercurrent of discrimination that disproportionately affects the hearing impaired.

Deaf Organizations

Despite these major fundamental challenges, significant efforts are being made to advance the causes of the deaf and hard of hearing in India. Today, the country has a number of important organizations dedicated to the deaf at the national, state, and regional levels. These groups help coordinate vital services and provide advocacy by supporting campaigns such as the annual Day of the Deaf every September.

Among some of the key organizations:

Deaf Education and Training

In the 1960s and '70s, India could claim no more than 10 schools for the deaf in the entire country. While there is still not enough in the way of educational support for deaf children and adults, things are gradually improving. Today, there are several hundreds of deaf schools throughout the country with the highest concentration seen in the states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Delhi.

Among some of the more prominent educational institutions (by state):

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  • Garg, S.; Chandra, S.; Malhotra, S. et al. “Deafness: burden, prevention, and control in India.” Natl Med J India. 2009; 22(2):79-81. PMID: 19852345.
  • United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF). “India Statistics.” Geneva, Switzerland; updated December 27, 2013.