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How would someone without sight communicate with someone with hearing disability?

As a blind, I think nothing is more difficult than having to communicate with a deaf person. Whenever we the disabled people from different parts of the country come together on special events such as the celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities and other disability-related programs, we the visually impaired persons and the hearing impaired persons reach a real deadlock not being able to communicate and interact with each other. On one hand, the hearing impaired persons can’t hear what we say and on the other hand, we can’t see the sign language they use. What makes the matter worse is that we the visually impaired persons do not have the concept of sign language and hence, we can’t even gesture what we are saying to them. To someone who can see and hear, the situation may look so funnyand unique but this is a reality.

Today, I just caught up with one of the hearing impaired instructors of Paro Wangsel Institute, Mr. Ugyen Wangdi whom I had actually met on several occasions before. As I was returning from the town with my 10-year-old son, he just held my hand and gave a handshake. I thought one of my friends was teasing me. But I could recognize him soon after he snatched my hand and started writing on my palm with his finger, a method they usually use to communicate with us. I think they believe we share the same alphabets and that they can communicate with us simply by gesturing the writing of key words on our palm with their finger. They move their finger very slowly to give us enough time to notice the pattern of their finger-movement on our palm and recognize the alphabets they make with their finger. But the saddest thing which they do not know is that the braille alphabets we have been taught in school are completely different from the ordinary print letters. We don’t even know the shapes and structures of the ordinary alphabets. After I failed to understand what he was trying to tell me, he took out his mobile phone and typed his name. He then showed his phone screen to my son to read for me. I said ‘thank you’ but I knew he didn’t hear me. Unfortunately, I had left my phone at home and the accessibility feature in his phone was not enabled for me to access it. So I couldn’t communicate with him. His wife was with him but she too is totally deaf. We just shook our hands and separated.

But although it seems impossible for the blind to communicate with the deaf, the modern education has at least removed some barriers between us. Those hearing impaired people who are studying in Wangsel Institute in Paro know how to read and write. In fact, the instructor whom I met today is a graduate of the same institute. He has completed class VIII and started working there as a sign language instructor for other hearing impaired students. Last year when we had the first annual disability conference at Samdrup Jongkhar organized by Disabled Persons’ Association of Bhutan (DPAB), we discovered a means of communicating with the deaf using mobile technology. We could successfully communicate with them via SMS and text messages. It’s amazing how they even use Skype to meet their friends and loved ones via video chat. The video call enables them to use the sign language effectively. Every time we met during the conference, we either sent SMS or text messages to each other whenever we needed to talk to them. It was a great experience. It’s truly amazing how their teachers have managed to transform their lives in such a manner. If all the visually impaired people could be familiarized with the sign language at the basic level alongside advanced communication technology, I feel the communication strategy between the visually impaired and the hearing impaired can be significantly enhanced. It will be difficult but not impossible for us to co-exist with our hearing impaired friends in harmony. As with my friend whom I met today, I still keep in touch with him through SMS and WeChat messages. He is extraordinarily intelligent and smart.

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