It’s a Small World?: Reflections on Deaf International Encounters and Discourses in India

A blog by Ms. Michele Friedner (with contributions from Annelies Kusters)
Assistant Professor
Health and Rehabilitation Sciences
School of Health Technology and Management
Stony Brook University

Annelies Kusters, a Belgian deaf anthropologist, and I, an American deaf anthropologist, have just completed an edited book provisionally titled “It’s a small world: International deaf spaces and encounters.” The book features twenty five chapters by deaf and hearing scholars and practitioners from around the world and aims to explore the different dynamics that happen during international deaf encounters. The chapters in the book look at development interventions, educational programs, missionary trips, tourist experiences, and large deaf conferences like World Federation of the Deaf meetings, as examples.

Very often deaf encounters in which diverse deaf people meet each other begin from the starting point “DEAF SAME” or “I am deaf, you are deaf, we are the same.” This is signed in International Sign, a shared sign language, or using gestures. It is undoubtedly a powerful feeling and discourse. However, such a statement (and sentiment) often obscures differences that exist. There are substantial differences between deaf people around the world, in terms of gender, class, caste, religion, educational levels, values, to name a few. And countries around the world are unique in terms of their political economy and positioning in the global order that divides countries into the global North and global South. Yet, because of globalization, the rise and proliferation of social media, and the emergence of development work focused on disability, there have been an increasing number of international deaf encounters. It is interesting to consider such encounters that take place in India.

Annelies and I have both spent a lot of time in India. Annelies is married to Sujit Saharsrabudhe, a deaf teacher and sign language researcher from Mumbai and has lived on and off in Mumbai for three years. Annelies has conducted research on deaf peoples’ interactions in the handicapped compartments of Mumbai’s trains and she is currently engaged in a larger project on gesture between deaf and hearing people in urban Indian contexts. I have just finished a book called Valuing Deaf Worlds in urban India which is based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Indian cities and which looks at how deafness becomes a source of value for deaf people themselves as well as those around them, including corporations and other employers, the state, and the non-governmental organization sector. I look at how this value that is produced by deafness does not always benefit deaf people themselves.

Both Annelies and I have been struck by the presence of international deaf people in India. They come on vacation and they seek out deaf Indians via Facebook and Oovoo and other social media platforms. They come to do volunteer work via the UK-based Voluntary Service Organization (VSO) or other organizations. They come as missionaries and they come as educators. They come to do research (as we did/do). And when they come, they bring new ideas about what it means to be deaf and what it means to be a member of the deaf community or deaf culture. These foreigners are often warmly and uncritically embraced by deaf Indians. Very often it has seemed to us that Indian deaf people embrace the ideas that they bring, ideas about deaf culture, deaf communities, and deaf rights, for example, and they then start to talk about their own deaf culture or their own deaf community. However, we have always wondered what it would be like to specify what is unique or distinct about Indian deaf culture or Indian deaf communities? Similarly, we have wondered if these are appropriate concepts for the Indian context.

I can think of a few examples that bring up some interesting questions of the ambivalent role that deaf foreigners can play in India and whether or not their interventions are always appropriate. One example took place in 2007 when an American deaf human rights program sent a delegation of American deaf college students to Bangalore for a human rights camp. The camp was hosted at the Association of People with Disability (APD) and there was to be an opening function to which APD invited several local disabled guests to give speeches and APD administrators also were to make speeches. Of course there was to be a lamp lighting as well. However, the American delegates were not very happy about this arrangement for the following reasons: they thought that the room was set up in a way that was not deaf friendly in that there was to be a window behind the speakers there would be glare, thus making it difficult to lipread. In addition, they did not like the way the room was set up—in rows—so that deaf people could not see each other when they were speaking. Finally, they resented the fact that there were to be so many speakers who had nothing to do with the deaf community. The APD staff had not considered whether the event was set up in a deaf-friendly way. As a concession, a sheet was hung up in front of the window to minimize glare but the event stayed the same. It is an interesting question, though, if the event should have been more significantly modified in light of the American delegates concerns and if being more inclusive of deaf ways of seeing and participating should have taken priority over how such events usually take place.

Another example is from Annelies’ experiences in Mumbai with the Denmark-based Frontrunners Program, an international leadership and skills development program that attracts international deaf students. As part of the program, students do an internship or spend time in another country where they work on projects. A few Frontrunners decided to teach about audism, or the idea that deaf people are discriminated against and devalued because of the value placed upon sound and communicating using speech in society. These Frontrunners went to a few deaf schools in Mumbai and taught about this concept, which led to divisions between students and their teachers in the schools. However, the Frontrunners were unaware of the aftermath of their lectures and teachings because they left India. In this case, it is interesting to consider whether the idea of audism is resonant in an Indian context and what the role of foreign teachers should be in teaching new concepts

To be sure, there has been a history of disability rights activism in India being influenced by activism elsewhere (and one could argue that the idea of disability rights is largely a Western phenomenon). Some notable events include a videophone conference between American disability activists and those in India, organized by the American Center in New Delhi in the early 1990s. As Meenu Bhambani clearly shows in her 2005 Masters thesis, this video conversation was very powerful in convincing Indian disability rights activists that they needed to organize and fight for disability legislation in India. Similarly, when famed physicist Stephen Hawking came to India in 2001, he asked to be provided with access to several Indian monuments including the Red Fort and the Qutb Minar, which resulted in the first ever ramps being installed in these places. Disability rights activists were outraged and amused by this: they were outraged that it took a foreign disabled visitor to have any access features built and they were amused to see the Indian government scrambling to accommodate Hawking’s wishes. Indeed, a disability rights activist told me that they wished that Hawking had wanted to visit many other places as well in order to have them made accessible!

And of course there is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which is an internationalist treaty that features some very Western values such as independence, autonomy, and equality; the treaty also mentions deaf cultural values and the importance of sign language. India has signed and ratified the treaty and Indian disability rights activists are currently fighting to have the tenets of the treaty incorporated into a new disability law.

However, it seems that deaf and disabled Indians should be cautious about unabashedly adopting Western discourses and ideas (as well as international travellers, educators, activists, and program administrators, perhaps). Such discourses and ideas are of course powerful and exciting but they often develop in very specific contexts that are different from the Indian context. I would love to see what kinds of specifically Indian discourses, ideas, and concepts emerge which are at the same time mindful of questions of global inequality and the role of international political economic structures in creating such inequality.