Focus on Which Family?: Deaf Identity and Social Movements in India

by Michele Friedner

I have spent the past year living in Bangalore, India researching the lived experiences of sign language using deaf young adults in this city. For most of my informants, deafness is not considered to be a disability but rather is a unique ontological state that requires different modalities of communication. Deaf people are not very much a part of the mainstream disability movement (although there is a new National Association of the Deaf that has been forging ties with the national Disability Rights Group) due to the fact that deaf people do not see themselves as having similar concerns and issues to other disabled people.

As the Indian state has been deficient in creating an appropriate education system for deaf children and as there is no formally recognized or accepted sign language (nor is there an acknowledgement that sign language is a real language in and of itself), communication can never be taken for granted. My research intends to look at what possibilities and constraints exist for deaf young adults when they finish their secondary schooling in light of the fact that in many cases they emerge from school semi-literate at best. I chose to situate my research in Bangalore as it is unique in several ways: it is the Information Technology (IT) and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) hub of India and it has been discursively imagined as a place of infinite possibility; deaf people move to Bangalore from all over India in search of employment; it has an interesting missionary past as a result of which American Sign Language was brought to Bangalore and one of the country’s best deaf schools and training centers was established here; there are many non governmental organizations (NGOs) which provide vocational training for deaf young adults; and the deaf communities of Bangalore are not very politically organized and they rarely are mobilized to make claims against the state.

As I am interested in how deaf young adults create and envision futures, I chose to situate my work in four areas: vocational training programs run by NGOs where deaf young adults go for training to learn basic computer skills, actual sites of employment including BPO corporations, data entry operation (DEO) offices, coffee shops, tailoring shops, pickle factories, and machine making factories, deaf churches, and multi-level marketing business meetings. I circulated through these four spaces with deaf young adults as they lived their every day lives. As there was a lot of “waiting” that took place: waiting for vocational training courses to start, waiting for employment opportunities, and waiting to earn money, I was interested in understanding what this experience of waiting meant for my informants and what their understanding of patience (a word which they often used) meant. I also conducted home visits with quite a few of my informants which posed interesting methodological and ethical issues. It is a common complaint and lament among deaf young adults that they have very little often do not know sign language and according to my informants, communication can often be limited to “Are you hungry?” and “Do you want to sleep now?” and so on.

When I went for home visits, I would bring a Kannada or Urdu translator and then I would be responsible for interpreting for the deaf young adults unless there was a relative or friend present who knew sign language. And very often, there would seem to be multiple interviews happening at one time as answers elicited from the deaf young adults were very different from those received from their families. On a few occasions, I did not bring an interpreter and I had the deaf young adults themselves act as the communication mediator. This was helpful as I was interested in understanding how they were able to communicate with their families. Spending time with families was in no way the most important part of my research as deaf young adults often stated that they felt alienated from their families and that they felt a greater sense of belonging with other deaf people. Therefore my research was based more heavily in so-called public spaces like NGOs, churches, and deaf outings at coffee shops. I was also very lucky as the location in which I chose to live, Kammanahalli, a newer Bangalore Development Association layout in the northeast of Bangalore, had many deaf young adults living there and there were two deaf churches located near my house.

I would occasionally have late night dinners with one of the deaf pastors at the Keralan place where he ate every night, and deaf people would come by to my house to ask my husband and me questions or say hello. I also conducted research in Chennai, the site of some of the oldest and most famous deaf schools in India, and Mysore, the site of a polytechnic institution for disabled students of which over 80 percent are deaf. Currently there are three major NGOs providing computer training and employment placements to deaf young adults. Deaf students from all over India come to these NGOs as a result of their reputations. What was interesting to me was that deaf young adults often circulated between the three centers: they would do a one year course at one NGO (which they had to pay for), then they would go to another center and do a three month free course, and then finally, there was a third NGO which provided BPO training and which functioned as a Òfinishing schoolÓ of sorts. What was interesting too was that all three of these NGOs promised placements to deaf young adultsand with the exception of the third NGO whose managing trustee formerly worked in the corporate world, had excellent connections, and knew how to “talk to the talk” of the corporate world and therefore reassure corporate executives about the value of hiring disabled workers, the NGOs were extremely poor in their placement records. In fact, one NGO, in an attempt to ingeniously mislead funders, decided to define placement as “giving a candidate an address for an interview.” As trainers were overextended at these NGOs, very often deaf young adults would sit around and talk about the other NGOs providing services, where deaf people were getting jobs, and which church in Bangalore was the best. There are eight deaf churches in Bangalore, as everyone told me, and most deaf people have visited at least one of these and a few regularly attend one or two. As deaf young adults at these trainings came from all over India, although mostly from the South, church songs (in sign language) and teachings became a common locus of affinity and conversation. Jehovah’s Witness halls in Kerala teach the same thing as those in Tamil Nadu and the songs that “The Family” teaches in Mysore are the same as those taught in Coimbatore.

I learned rather unfortunately that talking about churches and religion can be a sensitive topic and at one point one of the NGOs that I was conducting research at decided that I was a missionary operating with the intention of converting deaf people to Christianity. In fact this was an interesting and important (albeit a bit tense) year to be conducting research on churches in Bangalore due to the anti-church violence in Karnataka and Orissa which resulted in people asking difficult questions about the role of secularism and religious tolerance in India. While one of the churches, a small storefront church, lost its lease due to anti-church sentiment, the deaf churches seemed largely insulated and removed from these tensions. In contrast to the hearing NGO management at this one NGO which feels that religion is a sensitive topic which should not be discussed in public, deaf young adults publically and openly will debate the positive and negative attributes of the different deaf churches in Bangalore. These church goers often engage in complex negotiations with their families over attending these churches: some lie and tell their families that they are going to school, some tell their families that they are going to church to learn English, and others argue and plead with their families in order to be permitted to convert. As the majority of these churches have either deaf pastors and leaders or excellent sign language interpreters (in a city where such interpreters are scarce), it is interesting to think about what possibilities these churches offer for communication and development. Many deaf young adults have told me that they were never taught anything about Hinduism or Islam by their families and that they don’t understand their families’ religious practices. Yet, they say that when they go to church they are able to understand. Some of these churches use innovative power point presentations for teaching English words and have elaborate sign language choirs, other churches provide free lunches, and still others offer multimedia learning materials and individual tutorials. It is going to be an interesting challenge to unpack the role of the churches within the fabric of everyday deaf life in Bangalore and what “conversion” means for deaf young adults. These churches are relatively new phenomenon as they started developing in the early 1990s and each has a unique story. In interviews with older deaf people, I learned that prior to the development of these churches, there were few deaf social spaces outside of schools. As part of my research, I spent almost every Friday night and Sunday morning at a different church although I focused my research most heavily on one particular church started by an older deaf man and his hearing daughter which is affiliated with a large hearing evangelical church in India (which was embroiled in the conversion controversy in September- October 2008). The church brought a young deaf man, formerly a weaver from Tamil Nadu, who had been trained by an international deaf missionary organization to preside over the deaf church. When I first started attending the church in August of 2008, it was very much the “underdog” church with only 15 attendees.

However, by August 2009, as a result of the young deaf pastor’s energetic recruitment of deaf young adults at various NGOs, training centers, bus stands, and through word of mouth, the number of attendees had doubled. As a person of Jewish faith, it was interesting for me to spend so much time in (sometimes anti-semitic) churches and to constantly be witnessed to. I explained my role as a researcher again and again to no avail; I was often see as a potential convert. Also, as someone who was known to attend multiple churches within the very competitive religious field of deaf churches. I was often asked questions by pastors and church leaders about what other churches were doing and who was going to these churches. I often spent time with the same people who I interacted with at training centers and at churches as I wanted to understand the different aspects of their lives. Because of security issues, it was difficult to gain access to multinational BPO companies in order to observe deaf employees working. It was particularly rewarding for my research when I managed to gain access to one multinational company where 14 deafyoung adults trained by one of the NGOs had been placed. I was therefore able to interview and spend time with them both at the NGO and at the workplace where I took breaks with them and enjoyed the lovely free coffee in the break room. As India does not have a disability protection or rights law that applies to the private sector, these corporations and companies have no legal mandate to hire people with disabilities and so they do so under the mandate of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR).

In addition as “normal” workers have higher rates of attrition compared to disabled workers, these companies have realized that deaf and disabled people provide them with a more stable workforce for which they also get brownie points for. There is one DEO office in Bangalore which only hires people with disabilities: it features a sign outside its offices which says “Only physically handicapped people need apply.” In an interview with the chief executive officer and owner of this company, she told me that initially they hired “normal” people but they would leave very quickly and then she realized that if she hired disabled people they would stay on the job longer. She has won national awards and publicity for her work- even though she pays very poorly. Deaf people are increasingly being tracked into the BPO/DEO sector; on visits to NGOs, I observed NGO workers advising deaf job seekers: “You are deaf and so you should work with a computer. This way you don’t have to communicate with normal people. As this sector is largely populated by young people, it will be interesting to see what happens in the future. What opportunities will these deaf youth have to develop within these jobs? What will happen to India Shining as these young adults enter later twilight years? These rather precarious employment “opportunities” are perhaps why more and more deaf people, including young adults, are turning network marketing) schemes in which social capital is turned into financial capital. These schemes also serve as “deaf businesses” and deaf people often told me “hearing people have businesses so why can’t we?” As part of these businesses, deaf people invest between Rs 7000 (around 150 US dollars) and Rs 32,000 (around 800 US dollars) to join and they often receive some kind of product.

They then go out and sell the business to other deaf people in order to get them to join under them; deaf people from all over India are joining and so a team can have people from multiple states. As there were multiple deaf teams in Bangalore and only a finite amount of deaf people, it was interesting to watch deaf people fight over potential members and unfortunately this has led to great disharmony and animosity within the deaf communities of Bangalore. In one case, a young deaf man turned against his former deaf mentor (who interestingly enough happens to be a Hare Krishna guru cum network business leader) to start his own team in Bangalore. As these schemes are very vertical in nature and are premised upon having a deaf leader, they raised interesting questions for me about hierarchy, horizontality, and togetherness within the deaf communities. I was extremely uncomfortable at one point when I went with deaf leaders of one team from Pune to Coimbatore in search of new members. I watched these affluent city slickers reach out to poor tailors and blacksmiths in an attempt to get them to join their team.

When I asked people why they were joining, the common refrain was “Well, what else can we do? The government doesn’t take care of us and this is an opportunity for the future.” It seems to me that these network marketing businesses function very similarly to churches as they are about deaf people, motivated by the idea of “deaf deaf same”, or shared sense of being in the world, recruiting other deaf people. The theme of Òdeaf deaf sameÓ was ever present in my interviews with deaf people. I will be returning to Berkeley in October 2009 where I will analyze my data and write my dissertation. I hope to conduct future research among deaf people living in Coimbatore/Tirupur in order to compare the experiences of deaf young adults living in Bangalore with those working in the garment industry in these areas; I am interested in the possibilities and constraints engendered by different forms of labor and labor structures. Also, I wonder what the deaf experience is like in a city that is not as ÒexceptionalÓ and shiny as Bangalore.

Michele Friedner is a PhD candidate from the University of California, Berkeley. She was an AIIS junior fellow from October 2008 to September 2009.