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Media Misrepresentation Is Damaging, Says Saudamini Pethe, 1st Deaf Indian Woman To Do LLB

Posted: November 2, 2020

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As a Deaf woman, Saudamini Pethe had an extra set of constraints on the way to achieving her goals, only making her trail more inspiring..

“I was not born Deaf,” says Saudamini Pethe. “I suffered from meningitis at the age of 9 and the overdose of medication led to Deafness- basically my Deafness is post lingual Deafness meaning after my language base was fully developed. So the challenges in school (access) and college were comparatively less.”

Saudamini is the first Deaf woman in India doing her LLB, also an activist for Deaf women in various organisations..

On asking whether she preferred the term ‘deaf’ or ‘hearing impaired’, Saudamini says that the term ‘Deaf’ with an upper case ‘D’ was terminology for Deaf people who are aware of their culture and identity in the Deaf community – indeed something the hearing should be aware about too.

Saudamini is now in her second year of LBB after having done her masters in English Literature. Her post lingual deafness, however, meant that she did not have that great an impediment.

“For almost the entire first semester of LLB I had no interpreter for my classes, and it was very difficult to understand what the subject matter was, given the heavy legal language and jargon. So the biggest challenge during this time (LLB) was accessible education,” she added.

When asked about other Deaf women pursuing higher education like her she mentioned women who have attained an M.Sc. in Industrial Chemistry, MA in Elementary Education in TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Computer Application, PhD (TISS) and so forth.

A lack of awareness of the needs of Deaf persons

In India we are still far from any acceptance of Deaf people and their needs. While inclusive education may be an option, how realistic is this prospect? Will a step like this prioritise the needs of Deaf people?

“Inclusive education has its pros and cons,” she replies. “More awareness is created in society, but then again, the Indian scenario is still not aware enough to understand. A Deaf student is bound to feel left out in an inclusive classroom. A special education environment on the other hand gives them more confidence and cultural identity.”

With only about 250 registered interpreters in India and a lack of understanding of its place in empowering the Deaf community, ISL remains a stigma. Due to this, most Indian children who are Deaf are put through speech therapy, which often hinders education in their initial years.

Because of her post lingual deafness, Saudamini began learning sign language late as she could communicate in speech. This is often misunderstood by parents of Deaf children who expect that their child may also be able to speak, because as Saudamini says, “speaking is often inferred as the hallmark of cognitive development by the Indian society.”

“A good example of this is the case of a Deaf girl who used to be sharp and was learning good ISL, and educational concepts at a centre,” she adds. “But the family was so brainwashed about the ability to speak that they made her leave our centre and enrolled in a speech oriented school.”

She explained how parents want Deaf girls to remain cocooned, averse to letting them try skill training or education. “Sometimes even if parents agree, speech oriented teachers prejudiced against sign language training create confusion. I have seen girls aged 15 or 16 unable to understand mathematical tables. I had to use graphic visual education materials to make them understand the concept.”

Recent initiatives such as the Early Intervention Project started by the Haryana Welfare Society don’t cover all schools, but things in this respect are improving, even if slowly, especially as ISL interpreters are seen more often in media.

Experiences of Deaf women in India

In addition to her personal experiences, Saudamini Pethe has worked and interacted with many Deaf women. What are their specific challenges in India? “Communication. Freedom of expression, and the ability to communicate with their own parents, siblings, and even outside people, where Deaf women have to often depend on strangers around them to communicate.”

Life decisions such as career are also complicated since parents are not aware enough, and communication between the parent and child is compromised.

“Even right now I am trying to create awareness among the family of a young Deaf woman who wants to study, wants to pursue a career but is being forced into getting married soon,” she mentions.

Saudamini Pethe has faced gender bias in her state, both in and outside the Deaf community, and most parents have a hard time getting over their own conditioning.  Coming from a state prominently associated with gender bias, within a patriarchy, where do the desires and aspirations of those from the Deaf community fit?

“The biggest challenge was a lack of awareness among parents about the ability of their Deaf child. Being a patriarchal state, even hearing women have very little or no choice when it comes to pursuing a career especially in rural areas.”

How impactful are organisations working for Deaf women?

Various organisations in India work for the empowerment of Deaf women. Needless to say, their work largely impacts the life of Deaf women of all ages, enabling them to live lives that are not different from other women.

Saudamini Pethe has worked with organisations such as the Haryana Foundation of Deaf Women Trust (HFDWT) and All India Foundation of Deaf Women (AIFDW). With board members that are Deaf women as well, these organisations provide role models to young women. There are legal awareness workshops, Women’s Day conferences held by these organisations, and she highlights a legal session by AIFDW in 2015 that she has felt was special for her.

Saudamini explains, “These associations/foundations are providing a platform to young Deaf women to show their skills and gain confidence. When a teenage Deaf woman sees someone like herself leading on stage, it automatically instils a dream or an ideal for them to pursue and achieve something better in life.”

Facilities provided by the government largely impact the lives of Deaf persons in terms of education, the use of public resources and their quality of life in general, but there is still a huge gap in accessibility measures documented, and the actual facilities offered.

“The RPWD Act (Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act) was passed in 2016,” explains Saudamini, “with several mentions of reasonable accommodations in education, establishments, (govt as well as pvt), media, healthcare, and many more. But to date none of the services are being made accessible by any of the above mentioned establishments.”

On the education front too, very few schools have implemented education through ISL. During the pandemic, not all webinars and classes have interpreters. “Organizers often say they need a higher number of Deaf participants to provide Interpreters” she adds.

The significance of representation

Being the only Deaf woman in India pursuing LLB, she makes a statement and represents an entire section of women. There are issues they face, including the denial of services such as driving licences, education, work-place issues and family conflicts related to decisions such as marriage or career.

She agrees that Deaf women approach her for two reasons. “First because they feel I can understand them better and secondly because they want someone who is aware of their legal rights and can prove legally to the concerned party that they have rights.”

Adding an anecdote from her own experience she added, “I had to meet the manager of a very famous pizza outlet once where this Deaf woman worked. I had to make him aware of the rights of disabled persons at workplace. He was dismissing an issue of discrimination of the Deaf employee as ‘chhoti baat’ but when I mentioned the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD), his tone changed and he decided to cooperate and scold the hearing colleague who was at fault.”

Media misrepresentation of Deaf people

Media has been really irresponsible in the way they show Deaf people, says Saudamini Pethe, going from completely ignoring inclusivity to often misrepresenting Deaf people.

She said, “Most of the times media does not show a deaf person signing. He or she is often supposed to understand by lip reading or then conveniently shown as speech impaired but able to hear. For instance in Bajrangi Bhaijaan the girl in shown as mute whereas in actual real life she is deaf mute. And her communication challenges were extremely tough.”

Mentioning the series ‘Isharon Isharon Main’ she explained how nothing even remotely like the life of Deaf people was shown- there is use of random hand gestures and almost no use of Indian Sign Language (ISL). “I even saw an episode where the protagonist can’t say I Love You to the bride- Does that mean he can’t communicate just because he is mute? Instead of banking on the sympathy factor for TRP ratings, creating awareness about ISL is the true duty of media.”

Hopeful for the future

Asked what she thinks the lives of Deaf women should ideally look like in the future, Saudamini Pethe muses — “Well… first and foremost I would like to see a strong bond between the family and a Deaf woman.” Especially with their mother, as a woman who understand some things better, and the first person to be trusted – since Deaf girls are vulnerable to certain abuse more than boys in a patriarchal society. “Training her to protect herself from such abuse would mean we have laid the foundation of a better future.”

“As for Deaf women themselves, I wish they gain the independence and accessible education that enables them to decide for themselves to pursue a career of their dreams and lead a life of their choice as equal members in society.”

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A student of International Relations at Shiv Nadar University. Enjoys old bands and acrylics.

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