With the Government proposing to afford legal recognition to the sign language, experts on disability studies highlighted issues pertaining to the lack of sign language translators and the lack of awareness and conversant knowledge of sign language, the latter leading to the isolation of the deaf community.
There are approximately 389,677 citizens who are deaf and others who experience severe loss of hearing, all of whom use Sri Lankan oral and sign language (total communication) to communicate. The Cabinet of Ministers recently approved a draft of a bill proposed and submitted by Minister of Social Empowerment, Welfare and Kandyan Heritage S.B. Dissanayake which seeks to enact a sign language act thereby granting legal recognition to sign language for it to be recognized as an official language of the country.
The education of the deaf population in Sri Lanka, according to Dissanayake is at a lower level when compared with the education received by the visually disabled. Deaf children and students do not have access to an equal education (primary, secondary, vocational training and university), the latter which is a right as recognized by the Supreme Court in 2016 when then Chief Justice Kanagasabapathy J. Sripavan and Justice President’s Counsel Shanthi Eva Wanasundera in a determination issued concerning a child alleged to have been human immunodeficiency virus positive being denied education and access to education, ruled that all citizens over the age of five years had a right to acquire an education at any Government school in the country and that the right to education could not be deprived under any circumstance. There are schools specifically for deaf students.
Cabinet approval has also been given for the recruitment of 50 sign language interpreters. Sign language interpreting facilities and services are required in the cases of educational settings, social services, health and medical services, employment services, court services, counseling services and at funerals and weddings amongst others. Deaf persons are made to pay for obtaining the services of interpreting services and as of early 2008, the going rate for half a day was Rs 500 and double the amount for a day.
Although there are sworn translators dealing with Sinhala, Tamil and English, sign language translators who can assist in an official capacity for official purposes and those with the qualifications are few. It is reported that only five such sign language interpreters are available at present in the country.
Director of the Centre for Disability Studies and the Department of Disability Studies of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Kelaniya, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Kelaniya, Cadre Chair and Senior Professor of the Department of Parasitology of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Kelaniya, Prof. Nilanthi De Silva spoke of the need to develop courses such as degree programmes in sign linguistics and sign language translation in order certify sign language translators to play their role in an official capacity and also in relation to ordinary day to day functions. There is also a requirement to develop dictionaries and different kinds of other resource materials in order to accept Sri Lankan sign language by documenting the sign language, arriving at a consensus regarding the meaning of signs and related meanings, and coming up with new signs for words not found in the vocabularies. “We have to also offer education to people with hearing,” she further added.
It is imperative that the hearing impaired must be integrated into the wider society.
She also noted that the awareness of simple remedial measures (for an example the introduction of modifications to a website which would allow for the visually impaired to read the website) that could be set in place in this regard could improve access for those with auditory impairment.
Guided by the National Policy on Disability, the Ministry of Social Empowerment, Welfare and Kandyan Heritage through the National Secretariat for Persons with Disabilities (there is also a National Council for Persons with Disabilities) provides various services in this regard including the provision of Rs 250,000 for the construction of a new house (only if the applicant owns a land and has a monthly income of less than Rs 6,000), the provision of Rs 25,000 as a self-employment assistance to those earning less than Rs 6,000 per month, the provision of Rs 20,000 as medical assistance for surgery and related treatment and the provision of the same amount for the purpose of purchasing medicines and for associated travel-related expenses, the provision of assistive devices (tricycles, wheelchairs including ones with a built in commode, elbows, hearing aids, crutches, spectacles and eye lenses), the provision of Rs 3,000 for disabled persons in low income earning families (income less than Rs 3,000 a month), and the provision of Rs 10,000 as an educational assistance (only if the monthly income is less than Rs 6,000). The Secretariat also conducts a programme which through courses trains Government officers in the sign language, the Braille methodology and on mobility and orientation, with the view of facilitating easier communication with disabled persons.
The Department of Social Services, Provincial level Social Services Departments and Divisional Secretariats are also institutions which carry out the aforementioned functions and activities. Medical officers too assist in certain instances. The Victoria Home in Rajagiriya houses severely disabled persons with incurable conditions. The Department of Social Welfare also provides financial aids for infrastructure, self-employment training, aid equipment such as clutches, artificial legs and arms, walking frames, hearing aids and white canes, and counseling services, and elsewhere for the establishment and maintenance of a cooperative society comprised of handicapped persons.
“People in the deaf community use the sign language and are conversant with it. They can however as a result become isolated, cut off from the mainstream society. This is not acceptable. There must be wide awareness in order for acceptance to take place. Awareness and knowledge among teachers and special educators is essential to make it easier for the deaf community to use sign language as their primary mode of communication whilst being integrated into the rest. The conversation in this regard does not take place widely enough in a thought out, conscious fashion,” Prof. De Silva explained.