When Kingsley David was assigned to mentor a new recruit at the software company he worked for, it didn’t come across as anything but a routine affair. He would later find out that the person was hearing-impaired. David managed well, instinctively falling back on the communication mode he and his aurally-challenged (those who are hard of hearing) aunt had shared over the years when he grew up with her.
The episode, however, brought back memories of the silent world and wouldn’t let him rest until he started working on an online news channel for people with hearing impairment — the first of its kind in the country. SignTV, which went on air in September 2014, is now an online utility that presents news and programmes related to health and education for people with hearing impairment.
“There are close to one-and-a-half lakh hearing-impaired citizens in Kerala. SignTV aims to improve their access to information, education, health, entertainment, etc,” says David. “We hope to act as a platform where the hearing-impaired community can utilise the internet to access information. We are working on open source programming and other technology platforms for this. The idea is to leverage technology to significantly improve their lives and facilitate their engagement with society,” he says.
The SignTV team consists of seven members, who are hearing-impaired and three who can hear. Vithal Raj, Sanu Chukkiri, Bhargav Dutta, Nishil Narayan, Rajesh Kannan and Sajith Sajeevan make up the team that manages the channel. Soman Padmanabhan, Beulah Ingety, Renjit Abraham and Giridhar Nair support David in his endeavour.
David emphasises that access to information will empower the community. “The stigma associated with disabilities is so strong that the disabled end up being cut off from public spaces. They often stop schooling at an early age due to the many constraints. With the hearing impaired, their access to TV or other sources of information and entertainment is also typically limited.” He points out that if a hearing-impaired person wants to communicate a medical condition, they may not have the wherewithal to do so.
Teaching sign language to the aurally-challenged is of utmost importance, if they are to cut across the barriers, says David. “It is like their mother tongue. Whatever regional differences there are between the sign languages used in different parts of India or other parts of the world, they would still have a medium of communication. Sadly, even the special schools do not teach sign language. The teachers are not trained in it. So, all communication including teaching takes place through the inefficient method of training them to follow lip movements.”
SignTV is all set to start an online classroom to teach basic and advanced sign language through live streaming. Awareness videos on health and education and a whole gamut of other subjects will also be made available through live streaming. David is also working with special schools in the city to include one hour of sign language training in the curriculum. “Government Vocational Higher Secondary School for Deaf and Dumb in Jagathy, Thiruvananthapuram has agreed to allot one hour every day for the training. Our team will teach the language to students, teachers and staff,” he says.
David is hoping to open a studio for the channel which will allow the team to diversify their activities. It will cost around `5 lakh for the setting up of the studio and the dearth of finances is a major hurdle. As of now, the team is doing their best with available equipment to produce quality videos on news and related programmes. The channel can be accessed at www.signtv.in.