“Being mute doesn’t bother them, but they most certainly don’t like being called dumb.They are deaf and mute; not dumb.”

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Ajanta Mukherjee Iyer has spent 38 years as a hardworking and passionate Special Educator devoted to the well-being of the hearing impaired and mentally challenged, educable slow learners, and high functioning autistic children.

During her college years at Wilson College, Chowpatty, following the school bus of the Stephen High School for the Deaf and Aphasic at Babulnath, kindled an interest in her to want to teach the hearing impaired. Money not being an attraction to her, teaching the deaf-mute seemed more attractive than a well-paying corporate job. Wanting to do something for these kids was her only motivation. Ajanta Iyer in conversation with A.Radhakrishnan.

How long did you teach? Are you still involved in teaching?
I taught the hearing impaired for 25 years, and am now guiding educable slow learners for the last 13 years.I did my Dip. Ed. (Deaf) from Mumbai University, and PGLD (PG in Learning Disabilities) from SNDT University. I am a licensed Special Educator. I was a teacher, not ‘interpreter’ for the deaf and hard of hearing.

What are your views on deaf and mute children?
We use the terms hearing challenged and mute. ‘All are not deaf and mute. Some can speak with the advent of new technology in hearing aids. They are affectionate and understanding, and compassionate with others having different handicaps.

What did you discover in these children? What did you learn from them? Are they naughty, mischievous?
All of the hearing impaired are educable up to SSC. Those using better hearing aids with resource teaching and mainstream education, can go into any stream of education. Some of my students are engineers, bank employees, and teachers, and in the IT field. Patience, hardwork and due diligence works wonders. Yes, they play pranks, are boisterous at times, and enjoy life to the fullest.

What level of communication can they attain?
Initially, not much. But with good hearing aids, they can attain a fairly good level of communication, and also through lip reading. The senior ones using sign language, haven’t progressed as much as they would have wanted to.

How do you communicate with deaf people? Is it only about using sign language? Does being mute make a difference?
One should speak normally, in simple language, slowly and at times through gestures and body language. Some use gestures, total communication, sign language, of which there are many forms. Some of the senior students can’t communicate without sign language.

Being mute doesn’t bother them, but they most certainly don’t like being called dumb.They are deaf and mute; not dumb. They are very emotional about being called ‘dumb’. I deal with them as I would deal with a normal person. I don’t treat them differently.

Do we know what life is like inside their minds with only touch/taste/smell sight senses of the world?
It is a silent world for most of them. Everything is visual, and they expect others to communicate through body language. Being part of their world is the best way to understand and deal with them.

How do you deal with the ‘only mute’ students?
I have taught the deaf-mute, and not only mutes. The mutes need a speech therapist and special educators well equipped to teach them. They use the Indian Sign Language (ISL) as most of our students don’t understand American Sign Language.

Are deaf and mute kids good at languages, especially English?
Not the earlier ones who used ordinary hearing aids, but with new powerful hearing aids available, they can. I however don’t think it is true that many deaf kids can learn to read in a completely different language than the one they learned to speak in. Depending on the level of hearing-loss, some kids who are just mostly deaf, i.e., can hear with strong hearing aids, have a fairly good knowledge of spoken English.

Fully deaf kids who learned sign learn a completely new language when they learn to read. Depending how this is taught, can this be a major impediment to further schooling? Do deaf kids also have problems with pronouns?
Even with signing, they learn simple reading. Only if they sign read, can they do further schooling in the same stream. Other streams would be difficult. With simple pronouns… initially yes, but later they overcome it.

Can a deaf person speak normally? How significant a role do gestures play in a deaf-mute’s life?
Gestures play an important role. They can speak almost normally with good hearing aids,especially those who have been trained and fitted with hearing aids from a very young age, between 2 and 5.

Is it a personal preference whether the deaf person prefers to use his/her voice or not. Do all deaf people take speech class, want to speak, feel comfortable speaking or have ever used their voice?
Yes. Some don’t like to use their voice. Speech class is only at the school level. But those with good hearing aids, who continue for some more time and those whose education started 30 years back, understand the importance. The earlier senior students are happier not speaking. They are comfortable with signing.

Do these kids have other heightened senses, as a result? Are they able to think and communicate through touch, most commonly by tapping another person’s hand?
Some of them have. They touch a lot and convey their thoughts through touch (especially those who are now at the age of 40 and above).

How much confidence do they inherently have?
Initially very little, but it develops gradually over at least 10 years through education, guidance, counselling and experience.

What do you call a person who speaks sign language? What is the deaf-mute sign language?
I would call them a normal person but communicating in a different way. I wouldn’t label them for their disability. In India, they mostly use the Indian Sign Language (ISL), Cued Speech, Finger Spelling etc.

Have you taught someone who is blind, deaf and mute? How do people communicate if they are deaf and blind? Is a deaf-mute better off than the blind?
Yes I have taught a child who was deaf–mute and going progressively blind. People who are deaf and blind communicate through signs and touch. Impairments are always bad. One can’t compare one impairment with another. Deaf-mute is a silent impairment – not visible, but blindness is a visual impairment. Both have their own issues with their own set of problems.

Famous people who were mute and deaf and are successes?
Alan T. Hurwitz – the current President of Gallaudet College; Andrew Foster, Bernard Bragg – actors, directors, playwrights; Gabriel Faure, French Composer; Georgia Horsley – Miss England 2007 and Miss World Contestant 2007; Hellen Keller; Ludwig Von Beethoven; Marlee Matlin – the first deaf woman to win an Academy Award for Children of a Lesser God, etc.

Any success stories among your students?
Yes, many, like Priyanka Patil, who did her Computer Engineering from VJTI and worked in an IT firm for three years, and is now currently doing her Masters in the USA. Sharmishtha Valame, graduated in Elementary Education and taught for two years in the USA. She has also done her PG in Computer Education and is currently with an IT firm in USA. Dr. Nivedita Barve is a vet posted in a Government Veterinary Hospital in the Konkan. Her work is being well appreciated. Rajeev Bagga, who won at the Silent Olympics in badminton as well as a lot of national and international tournaments. As a coach in the United Kingdom, he still participates in international badminton tournaments abroad.

Tarun Manchanda did a comprehensive graduation course form Gallaudet University, USA, and is working in an IT Company in the USA. In his free time he also travels all over the US for the betterment of the hearing impaired.

Sanjay D’Souza is a much sought after independent architect and interior designer. The late Hemant Jain independently started a channel for the deaf called Newz Hook (Google application, You tube) and was awarded the Mphasis Universal Design Award from NCPEDP. A sad Moosa, graduated in science from Gallaudet University, USA, and is settled in Canada, working for a large firm there.

Abedali who did his Engineering from Government Engineering Institute, works for a large organisation in Mumbai. He also participates in the marathon every year. Many others are employed in banks, and some have started their own small enterprises.

What do you feel about Helen Keller?
She was a great personality who changed the world’s perception of how they saw the deaf-mute and deaf-blind. She proved that though she had multiple handicaps, nothing could stop her. A fighter to the core and the ideal of many like me, she is a guiding force and inspiration.

What is the attitude of Indians towards deaf and mute? Compare it to conditions abroad.
Indians look at them with mixed feelings – some understand them, some don’t, some just don’t care, and some just stare at them as though they are from outer space. People sometimes don’t understand them as it is a silent impairment.

Abroad, there are more working options, more facilities, a greater understanding of their problems, and institutions are more friendly and understanding to their needs. They have better expertise in dealing with their specific needs. We in India however, have excellent teachers, who are selflessly dedicated to the cause of the speech and hearing impaired.

What are the feelings of parents of such children?
There is initially a sense of despondency, helplessness and inability to deal with it. They refuse to accept the fact that their child is hearing impaired. They ask God, “Why me?”. They are under tremendous stress and have a low self-esteem, and are worried how the world will accept their child, how he/she will cope with what the future throws at them. They worry whether the child will be able to lead an independent life.

Once they are counselled, talk to other parents of the deaf, and see other hearing impaired children progress in life and doing well, their confidence returns. Now they feel their worries were not justified. Positive thoughts push them to push their child on the path to happiness and progress.

Can government give more support to the cause of these children?
Yes they can by way of grants to such institutes, funding their establishment, providing jobs and generally being proactive. More important, ensure that schools and colleges admit the hearing impaired who are capable of further studies.

How supportive was your family to your decision?
Very supportive. But for my husband Raghu’s support, this would not have been easy.

Your message to the community?
Empathise with them; don’t sympathise. They need your encouragement and not your pity. They want inputs from you and the society at large to understand them and their needs, and come up with solutions that improve their lot. They don’t need “lip-service” but for you to “read their lips” and understand what they are trying to communicate.

Understand their gestures, because they are communicating their feelings straight from their heart. Just because they can’t speak doesn’t mean they can’t communicate. Just because they can’t hear, doesn’t mean they can’t listen to you and understand you. Have more awareness about who they are, what they are, their needs, better understanding of their insecurities, to make the world a better place for them to be in.
Give it a try will you?


A. Radhakrishnan

A. Radhakrishnan is a Pune based freelance writer, short story writer and poet, who loves to make friends and elicit a chuckle from others.

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