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Proposal to start sign language exams needs a reality check, say experts

In an attempt to promote inclusive education, the National Institute of Open Schooling has announced that it is strongly considering the idea of introducing sign language exams for students with hearing disabilities.

NIOS Chairman Girish Sharma has said that idea was born after a deaf student questioned the relevance of having only Hindi and English as the language medium. By introducing sign language, the NIOS wants to enable all students to be assessed in the medium they are most comfortable with.

NIOS plans to frame a bank of questions in sign language and send it to its 21 regional centres across India. The board administers secondary and senior secondary exams to out-of-school students, equivalent to CBSE and Council For The Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE).

The announcement has been welcomed on social media by many. For instance, the Vision for Health Welfare and Special Needs (VISHWAS), a Gurugram NGO working in the field of disability and inclusive development, has lauded it as a "much wanted initiative that will give opportunity and flexibility to students with speech and hearing impairments to participate in an appropriate manner".

Activist Nipun Malhotra, who recently moved a petition seeking to get sign language officially recognized, tweeted, "Fantastic that NIOS is considering sign language exams for Deaf students."

However, there are concerns that the ground reality does not support such an ambitious plan.

As Anita Iyer, Founder EKansh Trust points out, there is no uniform sign language spoken across India.

The main support system for communication is language. How will they introduce this in the whole country when days of the week, like Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc. are signed one way in Delhi, in another way in Pune and differently in the South? How are they going to assess the children?" - Anita Iyer, Founder, Ekansh Trust

The lack of sign language teachers apart, another concern relates to the plan of hiring sign language experts to assess the children.

"There is no vocabulary or syllabus to assess the children. Courses are not taught in sign language either, so how will assessments be done? How many teachers even know sign language? When the children are not taught in sign language in the first place, how will they be tested?," says Iyer.

The principal of a Pune school, who does not wish to be identified, admits that teachers struggle because they are not taught any ISL. While children from different places have their own signs, they have also not formally been taught ISL for want of any full-fledged courses.

Indeed, hiring interpreters for the specific purpose of assessing deaf students could backfire as this goes contrary to the standard approach, where until Class 10, students are assessed by their teachers, who are often in the best position to judge their knowledge levels and skills.

This could also increase chances of cheating and misinterpretation, says Iyer. "We are already battling bad practices among scribes for students with visual impairments. Similar situations will definitely arise with hearing impaired students using interpreters for exams."

Instead, the focus should be on addressing the faults that lie at the foundation level, says Ruma Roka, Founder, Noida Deaf Society, which educates and trains deaf youth using Indian sign language.

"If we can make education accessible to deaf people through teachers who know sign language, that is important. This way students can read and write the examination themselves. Getting an interpreter to interpret the exam questions will help if that's what it means. But giving an answer in sign language would require the assessors to also know and understand sign language, or else have an interpreter translate for them."

A first step could be the formalization of ISL. Experts say that what is being taught in government-run institutes does not suffice for Class 10 syllabus in all subjects.

Formalization and a very large dictionary will serve students, their families and educators well, according to Iyer.

"Teachers are also struggling and would welcome a comprehensive course that would prepare them to address students with hearing impairments. A formal Indian sign language would mean they can teach anywhere in India."

No doubt, the NIOS' intentions are well-founded. What is missing, however, is a an approach that takes into account the hard realities and diverse needs of students.

ALSO READ: Will Indian Sign Language get official status? Delhi High Court to hear petition on 10 December

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