World, Education

Lending ear to help deaf protect linguistic identity

People with hearing impairment struggle for their rights in Pakistan as world marks International Day of Sign Languages

Kiran Butt   | 22.09.2021
Lending ear to help deaf protect linguistic identity Waleed Hassan and Rehan Fareed at the restaurant at The Mall, Lahore. (Photo by Kiran Butt - Anadolu Agency)

LAHORE, Pakistan

An international restaurant chain has set an example for all businesses by hiring staff with speech- and hearing-impairments in almost every branch of Lahore, the capital of northwestern Pakistani province of Punjab.

Waleed Hassan and Rehan Fareed both work at the lobby of the restaurant situated at The Mall, the busiest juncture of the city in terms of commercial activities, and take care of the guests’ needs.

The world marks the International Day of Sign Languages on Sept. 23 every year to support and protect the linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all people with hearing-impairments and other sign language users.

29-year-old Hassan used to take orders from customers in pre-COVID-19 days.

“People used to point at the menu to let me know what they want. It encourages us when they try to talk to us in basic sign language,” Hassan told Anadolu Agency.

Working in the culinary field, both of them aspire to open their own restaurants in the future.

“I am serving in the restaurant for the past seven years. I always hope for the best but we have limited opportunities here,” said Fareed.

Before their shift starts, their manager Rabia Mujahid assembles the entire staff in the hall, and gives them instructions for the day.

“While watching them both talking to each other, we all have learned some basic sign language. I think all of us should know this system of communication to make the differently-abled equal partners in our work,” said Mujahid.

Sign language curriculum

Considering the World Health Organization estimation of 15% prevalence of global disability, around 31 million people in a population of 207 million are likely to be facing some form of disability in Pakistan.

Farhat Aslam, the general secretary of Deaf Welfare and Awareness Foundation, said: “In Pakistan, there are no reliable figures on disability. The last national census to document the disability happened way back in 1998. In the current position, we have no idea about the exact numbers but they are surely very high.”

The foundation was the first institute established by a deaf person, Muhammad Mansha, in 1977.

“As a society, this is our responsibility to learn the basics of sign language. When people look at a deaf person with blank facial expressions it hurts them a lot,” Aslam said, adding there is no curriculum or a subject of sign language at mainstream institutes.

Despite having such a large number of differently-abled people, Pakistan is yet to have its sign language curriculum.

“I work with international organizations as an interpreter because I know the sign language. And I know this because of my deaf mother. But we do not have a curriculum or specialized subjects of sign language,” Aslam told Anadolu Agency.

Native language of deaf community

Taking a big initiative, 26-year-old Hassan Ahmad, Pakistan's first deaf social media influencer and vlogger, is helping people understand the needs of the deaf community.

“Learning the sign language is the basic right of a person with a hearing loss. As a YouTuber, I already took steps to spread awareness on the importance of sign language and asking people to learn it to communicate with deaf people in their native language,” said Ahmad.

This year’s theme for the International Week of Deaf People by the World Federation of Deaf is “Celebrating Thriving Deaf Communities."

“Now in many fields, we are making our marks but still need to establish an inclusive environment for differently-abled people," he said. "Every organization must provide equal opportunities according to special skills and needs of differently-abled people."

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