Deaf in Modern India: finding meaning and money

If you’re a young deaf person in urban India, where do you learn? There’s a good chance it isn’t from school.

Many deaf people told me that they passed their Secondary School Leaving Certificates without actually learning (and that they passed through copying from each other, often with the help of teachers or administrators; such copying is a deaf “social fact” and discussed openly).

This is from an article by Michele Friedner on Deaf Capital in India’s modern economy. Michele did her research in Bangalore and other large cities in India. She shows how deaf people learn from each other.

They learn varieties of Indian Sign Language and important social, moral, and economic skills from each other (e.g., how to interact with other deaf people and hearing people, how to act appropriately toward people of the opposite sex, and how to find and maintain employment).

Part of this deaf community is formed through through deaf-schools, social, cultural and sporting events. An interesting part of Michele’s work is how this community is related with the economy. In part the community is formed by training programs or job opportunities that are based on disability and impairment. And in some ways the community used to create further economic potential.

NGO training programs and certain jobs have been designed specifically for disabled people, and for the hearing-impaired. Beyond the Indian government’s quota of jobs for people with hearing impairments, Michele shows examples of types of work in both data-processing for outsourcing firms, as well as working as baristas in coffee-chains. Certain stereotypes have been produced by these jobs – employers and customers comment on why they would, supposedly, be suitable for deaf people. A “heightened sense of smell, taste and vision” will allegedly make a deaf person a better barista; that a deaf person “cannot talk” apparently makes them more suited to work with computers.

These jobs often do not have the potential for career advancement; and not all deaf people can access this employment. So in parallel, other opportunities are being explored in both the existing deaf community and as a way to extend the reach of the deaf community. Perhaps unfortunately, these appear to be pyramid schemes. Michele explores these under the title multi-level marketing participation which seems to be a way of describing unsustainable business models based on getting money out of new people signing up. The ways these schemes are promoted are based on appealing to a deaf identity – that they are a way for deaf people to get personal success as well as to help other deaf people.

Michele’s analysis of this to move away from “disability stigma” to “disability value”. As she points out, a lot of work on disabled people in this part of the world focuses on their exclusion and marginalisation. We need different ideas to understand these positive opportunities that are created for disabled people. Whether it is access to jobs in the new Indian economy or simply making money from begging, disability isn’t simply a matter of social exclusion.

Perhaps the move from stigma to this kind of (potentially exploitative and/or extractive) value is not such a big move at all. Perhaps there is a way that stigma and value are opposite sides of the same coin. However, in light of the making of these new “workers with disabilities” and in light of the fact that disability is now being marketed as “added value” by NGOs and corporate Human Resource executives, it seems to me that we need a new way of theorizing disability. This new way of theorizing should ideally also address disability value.

I agree with this assessment. So much work on disability rights and policy assume that disability is something purely negative, or just the results of barriers. This isn’t the case either for individual disabled people, or for the way that disabled people are perceived. Part of “disability value” is genuinely positive in the new connections and opportunities it creates – often, as Michele shows where government and other systems have failed. But part of values around disability have dangers too. Positive interpretations of why deaf people make good baristas are stereotypes that potentially limit people in their future opportunities. The fact that pyramid schemes develop around a deaf identity shows both the creative potential of disability as well as being an example of this potential being put to misuse.

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