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Sign Language Accessibility for the Deaf in Pakistan

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By Azima Dhanjee (YES 2013-2014, Pakistan, hosted by ACES in Royal, AR) 

According to the World Health Organization, 5% of every country’s population has some sort of hearing impairment. Today, the estimated total population of Pakistan is 200.81 million, which means that there are approximately 10 million hearing impaired citizens in Pakistan. With such a huge number, Pakistan still lacks in providing accessibility to these ten million people. This leads to marginalization, oppression, and lack of opportunities for this community. 

The Youth Exchange and Study Program in Pakistan has always encouraged participation of People with Disabilities in our program. Our alumni have constantly involved themselves in innovative projects with the aim to bring measurable impact in the community. 

Azima Dhanjee (YES 2013-2014, Pakistan, hosted by ACES in Royal, AR) and Arhum Ishtiaq (YES 2013-2014, Pakistan, hosted by PAX in Orange, MA), along with a Summer Sister alumnus Areej Al Medinah, started a project in July 2017 by the name of ConnectHear. The aim of this start-up is to provide Sign Language accessibility to the deaf people in Pakistan. They use the very thing that “intimidates” most people to empower the hearing-impaired individuals and as a purpose to bridge the communication gap between the deaf community and the society and bring them together as one. It gives the idea of using an audio to sign language app, and in-person and video call sign language interpretation services to encourage awareness and bring forth initiatives that would allow hearing-impaired individuals to be a part of this society respectfully — who are, otherwise, believed to be “disabled” in the eyes of hearing individuals only. 

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For the past year, the start-up has been able to execute milestone projects in Pakistan, including a Deaf Inclusive Concert with Strings Band, Interpreted Election Night with Geo News and a Deaf Theatre Competition with IamKarachi.

A part of ConnectHear’s determination is to mushroom Sign Language literacy by training individuals to become proficient interpreters and to make Pakistan a place where everyone feels welcome. This led to the start of YES Pakistani Sign Language Training Program, an effort by YES alumni in Pakistan to create our own interpreter workforce by offering PSL Training Programs, which are based on professional interpretation training programs all around the world. 

The PSL Interpretation Training Program (based in Karachi) provides hearing individuals with a basic grasp of sign language, which included training the hearing individuals about the history of sign language, the variations in signs all over Pakistan, Sign Language dictionary and most importantly, the rules of interpretation. Moreover, participants are given an opportunity to be trained and become a part of a more inclusive society and of the professional interpreter network. This was a four month long project guided by Azima and Arhum, as well as Muhammad Owais (YES 2013-2014, Pakistan, hosted by AFS in Seattle, WA). 

Muhammad Owais was one of the two deaf students selected to represent Pakistan in the 2013-2014 academic year. He spent his year in Seattle, Washington attending a mainstream school and learned about technologies that made his stay in USA accessible. From the time of his return, he has taken part in sports activities and motivates the deaf youth to participate in various events.

Azima Dhanjee is a Child of Deaf Adult (CODA) and was a part of the YES program. During her training programs, she was the interpreter for Owais and since her return, has worked with YES Pakistan to recruit further deaf youth to participate in the program. In addition, she works with YES as an English Language Trainer for newly recruited batches.

Arhum Ishtiaq has undertaken several roles in a range of projects with YES Pakistan and Society for International Education. Currently, he is a technology expert with experience in teaching Mind Craft at community-based sessions. He was also a mentor at YES Pre-Departure Orientation in Washington, D.C. in the year 2017.

The project first started with a recruitment process, where 20 students were selected based on their previous understanding of Sign Language and connection with the Deaf Community. In total, 36 classes were held every weekend for four months. The classes included basic in-house training, visits to deaf schools, organizations and on-field work with the deaf individuals. Moreover, it got an opportunity to interact with the Deaf Community by means of events like Eid Milan Party, Youth Activity Day, and Deaf Theatre Competition. This allowed the participants to practice what they have learnt with the target audience. The teaching module included how to give personal introduction, alphabet signing both single and double-handed, vocabulary-specific sign of words using available dictionaries, specific sign of phrases and sentences, code of ethics, and rules and regulations to become an interpreter. We also trained them on how to interpret any dialogue for in-person and video-based interpretation. During the course, we arranged a meeting with the deaf community where they directly communicated with the trainees and assisted them in improving their language skills and at the same time, bridging the communication gap between the two.

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With a majority of trainees now certified as professional interpreters, YES PSL Training Program has singlehandedly soared the full-time interpreter’s headcount across the country by double-digit percentages and it looks forward to continue building that progress even further up with its future batches of the program. It is also to be noted that this has been the first time that a professional interpretation program was conducted in Pakistan and ConnectHear is proud to have been the one to mark that milestone. The project also helped in generating a uniform system for all interpreters to follow and abide by. The interpreters will engage in various interpretation projects (both in-person and video-based) as a source of serving the 10,000,000 deaf individuals based in Pakistan and earning a decent income on the go.

The graduation ceremony took place at GLOBE, which is SiE’s interactive space for training programs. All the trainees were very excited to see their hard-work and effort was now coming to fruition as Executive Director of the YES Program, Farah Shafi Kamal, handed certificates to them. 

The objective of Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES) and ConnectHear is to engage these proficient interpreters into diverse tasks to make spaces more inclusive, enabling, and accessible for the Deaf community on the whole, which would be of encouragement in persisting to conduct auxiliary training programs to upsurge Sign Language literacy in Pakistan. It aims to start a beginner and intermediate level Sign Language course in October for all hearing individuals to come together and help in strengthening our society with avid learners by making it more accessible. More details and information is shared on their Facebook page.

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Remarks from students:

Qudsia Anis: Being a CODA; living in a surrounding of silence, I always saw my parents feeling arduous in communication with the hearing world. Which is why there is a lack of confidence in me to communicate with others. Thanks to ConnectHear for given me a chance to be a part of their training. I improve myself a lot; I gain confidence and of course the main thing, my sign language has improved. I will never forget the efforts my trainers put on me. 

Aliya Afzal: I am loving the class from the first day. When I was in the orientation, I thought that it would be a little hard for me because I have no confidence in me but now, in 2 months, I have got so much confidence. I didn’t know many things before joining this class, like expressions body movement and many hard words, but the trainers are extremely good and gave attention to each and every single person and made them better than they were before. 

Urooj Zia: The course outline is comprehensive and rigorous, but the instructors are well-versed in their areas and are empathetic and humane, which isn’t something I have seen often in education of any sort in Pakistan. So far, we have covered vocabulary and basics, and from knowing zero PSL, I can now confidently state that I can hold a little-more-than-basic conversation in PSL. 

Remarks from trainers: 

“This journey was a learning experience for both students and trainers. It is great to see the enthusiasm of students to work towards an accessible Pakistan. Sign Language is a beautiful language and I hope more people would join us to learn it.” – Muhammad Osama, Lead Sign Language Interpreter, ConnectHear 

“My parents are deaf and that was my reason to step in this field. Surprisingly, many of these students have joined our classes with no prior connection to the Deaf community. They all have equally learnt and improved. I invite others to join us for this cause and get trained. Together, we need to change the design of our society.” – Azima Dhanjee, CEO, ConnectHear

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The graduation ceremony for participants in the PSL Training.

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