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The need for sign language interpreters and how ConnectHear is playing its part

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

When you think about sign language interpretation services, you expect there to be a system in place, where interpreters are available on demand to be of service to every D/deaf person in need living in the country.

In Pakistan, that is far from what reality is.

The current number of sign language interpreters stands at just 30 individuals. Meaning, for every 300,000 people with hearing loss, there is only 1 interpreter available.

That is an extremely low figure, considering the fact that according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are more than 10 million people living in the country who have some level of hearing loss. As a result of this limitation, those with hearing loss are unable to avail the help of sign language interpreters and struggle to communicate in the workforce, even while doing something as routine as ordering at a restaurant or seeking help at a bank, with doctors or other public service professionals. To be in a room packed with people who speak a different version of language, who are not able or willing to hear you in yours, can be a terrifying experience. It makes them feel intimidated and rejected, as if they are in prison even while being in a public space. Social isolation, stigmatisation, poorer literacy, loss of independence, academic consequences, and underemployment becomes the reality for these D/deaf individuals.

This problem is partly caused by an increasing national shortage of sign language interpreters.

The lack of awareness of the language and ways of the deaf in the conscience of the hearing-dominated society has caused the communication barriers between both communities to become greater, and without a systematic measure taken to address this problem, it will lead towards the number of national sign language interpreters to shrink even more.

Therefore, ConnectHear designed a four-months long Pakistani Sign Language Interpretation (PSL-I) Training course. The purpose of the training program was to set out on a mission to grow the number of Pakistani Sign Language (PSL) interpreters available in the country and being a critical source of improved accessibility for local D/deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

Pakistani Sign Language Interpretation Training course was prepared under the expertise and leadership of our Deaf Trainers and Interpreters. The knowledge-intensive resources of national sign language programs and international regulation of interpreters, according to the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI), was put to use as a source of guidance for the method of working, international interpretation unity, and quality of instruction.

The course was set in motion in the beginning of May this year. Because of the onslaught of the coronavirus global pandemic, every provisioning of service around the world had to temporarily be shifted online. Following this direction, ConnectHear also had to conduct the classes through Zoom for the first two months of the training program.

Over 60 individuals from the hearing community took a step forward and committed to the program to become professional interpreters.

The students were split into batches of two: morning and evening, so as to adjust to the flow of the pandemic. These individuals belonged to a diversity of groups, including Child of Deaf Adults (CODAs), hearing family members of the deaf, Special Educators, and/or Teachers of the deaf who had previous basic knowledge and understanding of sign language and deaf ways of life. Some students were professors at well-known hearing-majority universities, some hailed from remote areas of Pakistan, and some even were practicing mental health counselors and psychotherapists. Some of the participants were even those who started from scratch because they had no prior know-how of sign language or the Deaf community.

Saba, a professor at Karachi University, said to us during a class:

As a faculty at University of Karachi, there is no doubt that it has been a part of our syllabus for years. But the students of our field, which is Special Education, Education, Psychology and Social Work need to learn sign language more in-depth and professionally, so that they can be an aid for persons with hearing loss and other communication disabilities.

On the topic of getting to learn in-depth sign language through ConnectHear, Saba added:

From learning single-handed alphabets to the entire communication vocabulary, I have travelled a long road. Now, my sign language fluency makes it easy to convey my message and understand theirs in a better perspective.

Another student, Zarine, who works in the field of mental health, said:

I feel that around the world, we have created so many differences between us. If we see someone who is slightly different from us, we pick on them. We all are created the same, so why should the Deaf community have to ask to be included? We need to be the ones to make an effort on our own and learn their language. Deaf people are not asking for a favour, they are asking for their human right.
Being on the way to become a psychotherapist, I don’t want the service I offer to be for a selected group of people. Gaining mental health awareness is crucial for everyone. I work with visually-impaired people and marginalised women, and now, I want to work with members of the Deaf community too, so that they can receive the help they require without any discrimination.

ConnectHear was even overjoyed to witness an overwhelming majority of women participation in the professional interpretation training program. Over 70% of the trainees were female.

The trainees were put through an intense and interactive series of synergistic tasks during the course of these months, as ConnectHear believes in the teaching of conversational and animated style of sign language for a deeper understanding.

Charades, Pictionary, Taboo, Chinese Whispers, and other popular interactive and word guessing games were played in the sign language version, as well as an innovative activity by the name of Word Associations, where the participants were divided into pairs of two and had to do signs of words that the other person had ended. The trainees also got the chance to engage in several video, song, and speech interpretation activities to hone their art of interpreting.

Along with that, a WhatsApp group was created under the supervision of ConnectHear Trainers, where each trainee was paired up with a Deaf buddy and got the opportunity to engage with them in sign language. The direct interactions with members of the Deaf community allowed the trainees to gain real-life understanding and hands-on command over Pakistani Sign Language (PSL).

Our Deaf and Hearing Trainers, Ahmed, Saqib, Sarah and Aliya guided the group of trainees according to our principles and international standards of being a sign language interpreter.

Aliya, our Pakistani Sign Language Trainer and Interpreter, on her experience of teaching in Pakistani Sign Language Interpretation Training course:

Sign language is my mother tongue. Though I am hearing, I was raised by Deaf parents and it was the first language I ever learnt. Now that I am teaching hearing students, I can imagine the joy my parents must have felt. When the students joined the program, most of them didn’t know sign language at all. Seeing their progress from start to here has been so motivating.
Hearing people need to make at least this effort to learn basic sign language, so that if they meet a deaf person, they don’t make them feel left out. Or if they find themselves in a deaf circle, they don’t feel left out. The learning of sign language will make it so that they both can communicate and help each other out.

Saqib, our Pakistani Sign Language Trainer, also had something to add:

Sometimes, people ask me how I can teach hearing people when I am deaf. I want to say to them that this is what the magic of interpreters help do. It connects the hearing and deaf together. I teach our hearing students with the help of my Co-Trainer. The joy I get when I see them doing sign language is just indescribable. Them becoming good sign language interpreters means they can be a part of increasing interpreters in the country and help reduce the communication difficulties we, as Deaf people, face in our everyday lives. Their efforts mean the provision of our rights.

In the last three months of the course, when lockdown was lifted in the country and public service operations resumed as normal, ConnectHear also shifted the once-virtual course to in-person at our Training Office, while observing all necessary national regulations and SOPs. Practical learning and face-to-face interactions are considered some of the most important aspects in the becoming of a sign language interpreter. We were relieved to see ourselves return to the daily round and continue to ensure quality professional sign language teaching to our trainees in person.

On Independence Day of Pakistan, our trainees gathered at our Training Office to celebrate the occasion with their trainers and some of our friends from the Deaf community. The trainees were divided into groups and got to even perform theatrical dramas and short skits in sign language, which they had prepared all on their own.

Some students with Trainer Saqib on 14th August.

In addition to teaching professional sign language interpretation, ConnectHear also programmed an English Language course to simultaneously provide the interpreters with the necessary spoken language skills and the ability to translate English speeches or other resources into sign language.

In early-October, at the end of the course, a comprehensive and interactive exam was executed. It involved for the trainees to interpret a number of videos in sign language, as well as aiming to hold a smooth and effective conversation with a jury of Deaf people. This empirical approach of evaluation allowed us to see that the individuals we were judging to certify as professional sign language interpreters were fully-prepared for any form of interpretation task they will be put up to out in the field. The final result served as a demonstration that the Pakistani Sign Language Interpretation Training program was a true source for an enriching interpretation drive for our trainees. There is now a bedrock set for them to be presented with a wide array of opportunities in the future.

ConnectHear also has additional plans to organise a month-long internship program at various social and professional spheres, where these trainees would be able to apply their learned work in a more practical way and gain hands-on experience of great value.

But more importantly, alongside learning, mastering, and employing Pakistani Sign Language out in the field, our trainees will get to act as catalysts promoting the importance of sign language accessibility and passing their knowledge on to more and more people from the hearing community.

The path this project has opened will lead towards increasing the quantity of Pakistani Sign Language interpreters in the country. Now, more interpreters will be available to cater to the needs of the Deaf community and other sign language users by expanding access to healthcare, education, employment, ensuring equality in societal spaces, and breaking down the communication barriers in order for the deaf and hard of hearing to steer an independent, just, and improved quality of life.

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