Starting Sign Language Early

Few Indian doctors give parents with deaf children all their options. One Haryana center’s early intervention program is teaching deaf children and their parents sign language earlier.

Priti Salian

June 20, 2019

Starting Sign Language Early

On a hot and humid May morning in a large, cheerful room in Gurugram, Abha Bisht is narrating the story of a baby kangaroo to a group of kids. “Baby kangaroo always wanted mamma by her side. How many of you do?” Bisht signs silently. Once in a while, she points to the hand-drawn cutouts of kangaroos and other animals splashed across the wall in front of her. Her audience, mostly between three and six years old, is surprisingly attentive.

Bisht is a deaf trainer at one of eight Haryana Welfare Centres for Persons with Speech and Hearing Impairment (HWCPSHI) across the state of Haryana. Five days a week, over 30 hearing parents and their deaf toddlers, between six months and six years old, attend its Early Intervention Program to learn Indian sign language.

Most children born deaf aren’t lucky enough to learn sign language. In the U.S., where two to three of every 1,000 babies are born deaf or with hearing loss, only about 25% of parents are able to communicate with their deaf children in sign language. In India, the deaf population is over 5 million, but many believe there are far more cases that have gone unreported. There are no official statistics available, but the numbers on sign language use are much smaller, “probably even less than 5%,” said Ashish Doval, coordinator of the Early Intervention Project. Like the U.S. in the late 19th century, oral education remains the norm when teaching deaf students.