The ‘My Sign Challenge’ initiative was born out of a deep understanding of the challenges the hearing-impaired, especially non-communicative individuals, face. DPK Babu, director of Ashray Akruti, observed the struggles of the hearing-impaired individuals in connecting with their families and in advancing in education and careers on account of a lack of understanding of sign language.
He says, “It is painful and challenging when communication barriers arise within families, particularly when some members are hearing-impaired and others are not. I have observed the preference of hearing-impaired individuals for the company of others who understand sign language to that of their parents and siblings. This situation can take an emotional toll on everyone. Feelings of isolation, frustration, and miscommunication can contribute to psychological issues.”
Bridging the gap
Addressing the communication gap between hearing-impaired individuals and their families requires a multi-faceted approach. Encouraging family members of the hearing-impaired to learn sign language was the first step. Taking this initiative beyond families, Babu, through the My Sign Challenge, aims to promote inclusiveness in society and facilitate better communication.
The My Sign Challenge was inaugurated on the World Day of Deaf on September 29, 2023, and Babu is keen on creating awareness and understanding ahead of this year’s commemoration.
What is the challenge?
Participants are encouraged to learn a sign, produce a video, and challenge a friend or family member to do the same, creating an awareness campaign on social media. Babu says, “The focus is on Indian Sign Language, which is specific to the culture of India and differs from international sign languages such as American Sign Language and British Sign Language.”
Where does one start? Babu suggests that participants visit Ashray Akruti branches or use online resources to learn sign language. After learning, they can post videos or content showcasing their newly acquired sign language skills on their common groups or social media platforms. The next step is to encourage their friends to take up the challenge and learn sign language, creating a chain of awareness and skill-sharing. This approach can make the learning process engaging and contribute to raising awareness about sign language.
Babu says the My Sign Challenge will be ongoing, with plans to enhance publicity and involve celebrities to increase momentum and awareness. Individuals interested in taking up the challenge can participate through corporate talks, events, or by being challenged by colleagues associated with the initiative.”
A family adversity
Babu’s motivation for entering this field comes from having a hearing-impaired brother and his son. Witnessing the challenges faced by two generations inspired him to devise solutions and create opportunities for others in society. He started Ashray Akruti with five children in 1996. Today, this registered non-profit organisation, in its 27th year, operates 30 projects, including special schools, early intervention centres, and mainstreaming initiatives. They employ a dedicated team of audiologists, speech therapists, social workers, doctors, special educators, psychologists, physiotherapists, and occupational therapists.
The institute also contributes to a pan-India initiative, producing sign language content for hearing-impaired children, accessible on YouTube.
Ashray Akruti runs a general educational institution and secondary special education centre in Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh, exclusively for the hearing impaired, which was started in 2015.
Babu says that Ashray Akruti follows standard sign language modules. “We offer two-year diploma courses in Indian Sign Language. Additionally, we run the Women Empowerment through Sign Language and Technology (WEST) course, providing basic sign language training, English, soft skills, and computer technology to underprivileged women and giving them a stipend of ₹10,000. It’s an income for them, and at the same time, they can find jobs after this training. We are training the third batch right now.”
Ashray Akruti operates a distinctive initiative offering Multimedia and Animation training for differently-abled individuals who have not pursued higher education but aspire to work in the creative field. Says Babu, “The training covers desktop publishing tools such as Photoshop and InDesign, and participants are placed in companies such as Gemini and VFX Prasad Labs for post-production work. The emphasis is on visual editing rather than hearing.”