Coping with the lockdown with disabilities

Updated: Apr 19, 2020, 15:25 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

As the hearing and visually impaired population struggles to access pandemic information and navigate guidelines, they say they are facing isolation of another kind

Siddhant Shah, the founder of Access for ALL, has used design to make books, even art galleries and railway stations accessible through touch for the blind. But, the current paranoia around touch is counter productive to the cause
Siddhant Shah, the founder of Access for ALL, has used design to make books, even art galleries and railway stations accessible through touch for the blind. But, the current paranoia around touch is counter productive to the cause

Ever since the Coronavirus outbreak, Pradeep More, general secretary of the State Association of the Deaf, has been busy making videos of important announcements in the Indian Sign Language (ISL) and uploading them on social media. His impassioned tweet for making digital content accessible to all, prompted government authorities to take notice. "The Maharashtra State Commissioner of Disabilities Prerna Deshbhratar uploaded a video explaining the current situation in ISL. This was done in the first week of April, weeks after the outbreak. We were the last to receive information," More tells mid-day with the help of an interpreter.

The 2011 Indian census cites roughly 1.3 million people with hearing impairment. "Maharashtra has close to 15 lakh deaf people, out of which 95 per cent can't read." The statistics are hardly surprising in a country where education for the hearing impaired is lacking.

According to AS Narayanan, president, National Association of the Deaf, India, the majority of the existing teachers do not use ISL as their primary language to teach children with hearing disabilities. "Instead, they only speak and gesture with their hands. As a result, the students do poorly in academics." While the policy on accessibility of television programmes for persons with disabilities was approved by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in September 2019, the implementation has been slow due to the lack of competent interpreters.

Shah interacting with a hearing impaired youth during lockdown
Shah interacting with a hearing impaired youth during lockdown

Earlier this year, The New York Times highlighted the plight of China's deaf population. The piece discussed how the Wuhan authorities made no announcements about the epidemic in sign language. "On January 23, the day the city was locked down, some deaf residents didn't find out about it until they had trouble taking public transport. Many older deaf people have trouble reading. So, much information about the outbreak's seriousness did not reach them," it read. The situation is no different in Mumbai, says More. At the moment, finding interpreters is a challenge as face-to-face contact is barred, which means all forms of correspondence need to be done remotely.

Siddhant Shah is the founder of Access For ALL, a disability services and support organisation. Shah's team, in the past, has created tactile kits and Braille books on menstrual hygiene for special schools. "But, right now, touch and tactile are almost like cuss words," says Shah, adding that touching objects and surfaces is more routine for the visually impaired than the sighted. But the spread of the virus, has exacerbated the fear of surfaces. With the discontinuation of Braille newspapers during the lockdown due to restriction on supplies and movement, he says the visually challenged are feeling "socially distanced" on a whole new level. Dr Sam Taraporevala of Mumbai's Xavier's Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged has been having trouble accessing information on the city's containment zones. Dr Taraporevala, associate professor and head of the department of sociology at St Xavier's College, headed the XRCVC team that helped banks such as Union Bank of India make talking ATMs, allowing access to the blind. He says the hotspot map released by the BMC is high on visual appeal, perfect for the sighted. "But, the same information can be provided in an alternate text [for the benefit of the blind]," he says.

Pradeep More, general secretary of the State Association of the Deaf, has converted important COVID-19 announcements into sign language
Pradeep More, general secretary of the State Association of the Deaf, has converted important COVID-19 announcements into sign language

Accessing essentials has become a problem, too. "Let's take an example," says Shah. "All grocery store visits now require customers to stay a few feet apart. How is a visually impaired person to figure this? And if they are not standing in the demarcated circle, they get yelled at."

Pradeep Mokashi, who plays the dholak in trains, was one of those to face censure from security personnel when he was unable to navigate the guidelines outside a kirana store in Vangani. Scared to ask for someone's arm for guiding, Mokashi returned home empty-handed. When Hemlata Tiwari, founder of Swaradhar, an NGO that aims to provide a platform to visually challenged street artistes, learnt of this, she contacted a local volunteer for help. "Grocery shops have a tight two-hour window to remain open. When a crowd descends, the visually challenged find it hard to navigate. They end up being shooed, or asked to come later," she says.

Should a deaf person manifest any symptoms of COVID-19, it's an additional hurdle, says Ramya Miryala, founder, Deaf Enabled Foundation, considering government hospitals don't have sign language interpreters. Until now, she has helped a couple of hearing impaired individuals convey their symptoms to doctors through video calls. "Fortunately, they all tested negative."

If you need assistance, contact ACCESS FOR ALL on 9920765777 email at reachaccess
forall@gmail.com

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