[lg policy] Fwd: A New Language for Pakistan’s Deaf

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Apr 1 19:38:26 UTC 2015

 Forwarded From: Fierman, William <wfierman at indiana.edu>
Date: Wed, Apr 1, 2015 at 2:54 PM

A New Language for Pakistan’s Deaf

 *A New Language for Pakistan’s Deaf*

APRIL 1, 2015

KARACHI, Pakistan — With one national language, Urdu, four provincial
tongues (Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto and Balochi), and nearly 300 regional
dialects, Pakistan
linguistic diversity is like a beautiful carpet, interwoven with threads
ancient and young. The regional languages developed over thousands of
years, while Urdu came from northwestern India in the 12th century. Then,
in 1947, English was made an official language as a legacy of British rule
in India.

Now a small group of educators of the deaf intends to add one more language
— this one not spoken. It is called Pakistan Sign Language, and its
creators just may succeed in spreading its use across the country.

Schools for the deaf have existed in Pakistan since the 1980s; one of the
largest in Karachi is the Absa School and College for the Deaf, where
initial research was conducted to develop Pakistan Sign Language, or
P.S.L., as it is known here. A Pakistan Association of the Deaf, with
chapters in many cities and towns, was formed in 1987, when deaf people in
Pakistan were not just misunderstood; often they were shunned or ostracized
by people who considered them mentally handicapped and unsuited for normal

In the same decade, Richard Geary Horwitz, an American, and his wife,
Heidi, from the Philippines, moved to Pakistan from India and added a new
dimension to deaf education. They are the parents of a boy who had been
born deaf, and for years they had worked with the deaf in the Philippines
and in New Delhi. While visiting Karachi in 1984, they learned that their
expired Indian visas would not be renewed. So they stayed here and started
a program called Deaf Reach in a small classroom with 15 children from
Karachi’s slums as well as their son, Michael. From it grew the Family
Education Services Foundation, a network of seven schools that now
stretches across Karachi, Hyderabad, Rashidabad, Sukkur and Nawabshah in
the province of Sindh, as well as Lahore in Punjab.

Today, Pakistan’s Deaf Reach schools educate nearly 1,000 students, and
additional foundation programs offer vocational and technical training,
parent training and teacher education.

It is, of course, not enough. There are an estimated 1.25 million deaf
children in Pakistan, and Deaf Reach schools educate a small fraction of
them. Still, the project is considered a success when measured against
Pakistan’s bleak educational landscape. It is, after all, a nonprofit
network with its own curriculum that delivers high-quality education to a
specialized community. Pakistani companies and foreign aid organizations
have enthusiastically donated money, and U.S.A.I.D. donated $250,000 last
year to help build the Deaf Reach school in Rashidabad.

Inside the Deaf Reach schools, an emotional and social revolution is on
view every day. Students are treated not as “special,” but as normal. The
one thing that sets a Deaf Reach classroom apart is that the lessons take
place in complete silence. Students and their teachers — half of whom are
deaf themselves — communicate in sign language, a graceful ballet of hands
synchronized with moving lips and lively facial expressions.

Continue reading the main story
reading the main story

Continue reading the main story

One key to their success is the invention of Pakistan Sign Language.
Another is the use of digital media.

A common Indo-Pakistan sign language was in use across the subcontinent
long before the 1980s, but many words and concepts in Urdu and other
regional languages had no place in it. Pakistan Sign Language grew out of
this need, but by the late 1990s the books and guides developed by Absa
were deemed outdated and went out of print. So the family education
foundation worked with deaf instructors in Punjab and Sindh, and with
Rubina Tayyab, the head teacher at the Absa School, to develop a new online
lexicon that now contains 5,000 words and phrases. On its website, a new
video each day shows men, women, girls and boys signing a phrase with its
meaning repeated in English and Urdu. Aaron Awasen, the foundation officer
in daily charge of the P.S.L. project, describes this lexicon not as a
definitive dictionary, but as “a portal through which Pakistan Sign
Language can continue to develop.”

Making technology central is typical of the Deaf Reach system. The online
tools are accompanied by a book, a CD and a phone app. Computers and
televisions are prominent in classrooms, and teachers are encouraged to
explore the Internet for supplementary materials.

The P.S.L. tools imprint three languages — Urdu, English and P.S.L. — on
the children’s brains at the same time. They also enable relatives and
others to learn P.S.L. even if they can’t attend regular training sessions.
Meanwhile, a publicity campaign called “Don’t Say It, Sign It” shows
Pakistani celebrities like the filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and the
cricket star Shahid Afridi signing simple phrases in short online video
clips, in an effort to remove the stigma of “otherness” and incapacity from
the common perception of the deaf.

Ten thousand copies of the organization’s dictionary and DVDs have been
distributed across Pakistan, and a second edition is in print. Next, the
foundation will send “deaf leaders” to 25 cities to meet with their deaf
communities and provide materials for smaller villages. By distributing
18,000 P.S.L. books and 7,000 DVD sets, the organization hopes this first
phase of its project will affect 150,000 people.

In a country like Pakistan, where so many other languages and communities
jostle for space, and a walk down any street reveals a modern-day Tower of
Babel, what does it mean to give an entire community its own language? If
“a loss of language is a loss of culture,” as Mr. Awasen says, then the
gain of a language is a gain in culture. So empowering the deaf can only
strengthen Pakistan’s social fabric; the deaf community will be proud to
take its rightful position within the constellation of diversity that is
one of Pakistan’s greatest assets.

Bina Shah is the author of several books of fiction, including, most
recently, “A Season for Martyrs.”


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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