Perspective: For deaf young people, language is the key

By Krishneer Sen

Access to information and means of communication are essential for anyone to realize their rights as a citizen. Without ways to gather knowledge, express opinions and voice demands, it is impossible to obtain an education, find a job or participate in civic affairs.

In my country, Fiji, lack of access to information and means of communication are the biggest issue facing deaf children. Information and communication technology (ICT), which I am studying at the university, is helping deaf people around the world, creating opportunities that simply would not have been possible a generation ago. Where available, ICT provides deaf people with the chance to communicate and connect with friends, reduces their isolation and opens up avenues for their participation in political, economic, social and cultural life. Those who lack access – because they live in rural areas, are poor or lack education, or for whom appropriately adapted devices are not yet available – experience frustration and exclusion.

Deaf Fijians like me have limited access to the media, emergency services – and even simple telephone conversations. In the absence of such assistive technology as captioned telephones, we must rely on people who can hear to serve as interpreters, or resort to text messaging. This will not change until ICT and media policies for people with disabilities become a top government priority.

Deaf people can succeed and contribute to society just like hearing people. Developing their abilities begins with education and language. Because deaf children grow up in a hearing world, quality education necessarily means bilingual education. In Fiji, deaf children should be taught Fiji Sign Language in addition to the languages commonly taught to hearing Fijian children (English, Fijian and Hindi), and this should start at birth. Bilingual education helps deaf children develop their ability, to communicate using the languages of hearing people: Deaf children who can communicate effectively in sign language will find it easier to learn other languages, like English. I believe that bilingualism will give deaf children better access to the education they need to function as equal citizens.

As a kid, I used to watch cartoon programmes on Fijian TV with no subtitles or sign language interpreters. My family didn’t know sign language well. Later on, I realized that the reason I was still struggling with my English was that I had not been exclusively taught using signs at home. Parents have an important role in facilitating deaf children’s ability to communicate and access information; along with other people who interact with deaf children, they need to take the initiative and use sign language to communicate in their daily lives, at home and school. We need to make media more accessible to deaf children by captioning or interpreting television programmes and developing children’s programmes that use sign language. We need an environment free of communication barriers. I would like to see Fijian Sign Language used in a range of programmes, from news to cartoons. In addition to television, social media can provide powerful tools to enhance knowledge about Fiji and international affairs and ensure that everyone, including people with disabilities, has access to information about the political situation and can cast an informed vote during elections.

Making ICT available to deaf children can facilitate their social and emotional development, help them learn in mainstream schools and prepare them for future employment. I took a basic computer class at a special school, and it changed my life for the better: It was through the Internet that I learned about Gallaudet University, where I now study.

In addition to enhancing education, ICT provides deaf and other young people with disabilities to learn about their rights and band together to campaign for their realization. By facilitating activism, ICT may thus help increase the profile of persons with disabilities within society at large and allow them to participate actively.

My dream is to see deaf people communicate freely with hearing people through the use of assistive technologies. Once I graduate, I plan to start a project to set up communication technologies in Fiji in order to facilitate communication between hearing and deaf people, using sign language interpreters as well as video calling. I will be working with the Fiji Association for the Deaf, of which I have been a member for many years, to advocate for human rights, opportunities and equality.

If the Government is to consider the needs of deaf people a priority, deaf people must advocate on our own behalf. To facilitate activism among deaf people, we must educate deaf children to use both sign language and the languages of the hearing communities they live in, and we must work to expand access to technologies through which they can find information and communicate with others, deaf and hearing.

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