Have any of us ever wondered about living in a world with no sounds? A world without the sound of children giggling or melody of the drizzling rain. Think about a state of never-ending silence, a world where words bear no meaning. Can we, the fortunate ones, imagine the frustration of not being able to express our feelings and needs to the people we love? No, we can’t but unfortunately in Bangladesh more than 30 lakh hearing impaired people live through these frustrations for each moment of their entire life. Moreover, these frustrations turn into self-pity when they are deprived of the basic human rights in our country.
Human rights are those rights which one possess by virtue of being a human. The very core characteristic of the definition of human rights suggests that every person is entitled to enjoy them regardless of their sex, language, colour, nationality, religion or any form of disability such as deafness. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006 (CRPD) reaffirmed that deaf people and people with other disabilities have equal right to enjoy all human rights as everyone else.
The inability to communicate is the root cause for most violations against the deaf people in this country. Enjoyment of most human rights; such as right to freedom of expression, right to education, right to employment, right to information, right to a fair trial, right to self-determination and so on depend on access to a language. So, sign language is the missing tool needed in eliminating human right violations against the deaf.
For the hearing impaired, access to sign language will pave the way for accessing the ocean of information, a right which is ensured by Section 9(10) of the Right to Information Act 2009. Yet most media and Government agencies do not provide information through sign language, which prevent the deaf people from participating and becoming a part of the mainstream society.
As a signatory party to the CRPD, Bangladesh enacted The Disabled People’s Rights and Protection Act in 2013, which is in line with the principles of CRPD. Section 16 of this Act ensures certain rights for deaf persons, such as section 16(b) ensures every disable person will have equal access to justice. While section 16(m) and 16(q) ensure right to education in a manner convenient and the right to take sign language as a first language.
But, unlike most deaf people do not get the chance to learn their first language in our country. We do not have any established research facilities working to develop and promote Bangla sign language. Ministry of Social Welfare and Bangladesh National Federation of the Deaf produced a Bangla sign language dictionary in 1994, but since then no significant step has been taken other than giving formal recognition to Bangla sign language. Despite being the second largest language, there is very little opportunity in learning sign language in Bangladesh. Even most of the schools for deaf still teach children to lip-read and speak verbally as a means to communicate. Whereas the most effective and natural way to communicate for the deaf is through sign.
Studies show that people with disabilities have higher risks of being criminally victimized. Lack of legal protections make their situation even worse. As sign language is not legally recognized as court language, our judges often hesitate to credit statements from deaf persons or summon sign language interpreters as experts. Section 118 of The Evidence Act, 1872 specifies that any person who can understand the questions put to them and able to give rational answers, shall be competent to testify before the Court. So a deaf person or a dumb person or even a blind person can testify before the court if the court thinks fit. However, section 119 specifically empowers a dumb witness to give his evidence before the court by using sign language or any other intelligible way, while no mentioning about the deaf witnesses. It is not clear why only one sense has been given priority over the others.
In the case Md. Morshed Alam v. State, 53 DLR (AD) 123; a deaf rape victim was discredited as a witness because the victim did not have ‘perfect knowledge’ about sign language. Whereas, it was held by an Indian Court in State of Rajasthan v. Darshan Singh (2012) 5 SCC 789 that a deaf and dumb person is a competent witness when oath can be administered to him/her. In case of recording of his statement in sign language, aid from interpreter can be sought. However, legal recognition and presence of sign language interpreter will not make any difference without the promotion of sign language.
In our country, deaf persons live through the fear of being persecuted all the times. Allowing deaf witnesses statutory right to give statements before the courts might help creating a safer environment for the deaf. Law Commission of Bangladesh has taken the initiative to pass The Bangladesh Evidence Act, 2015 and posted a draft copy for general comments. Sections 3, 45 and also 119 of the proposed act should be amended. Under section 3 definition of evidence should be amended and statements through sign language should also be considered as evidence. Then under section 45 sign language interpreters should be included as experts and lastly under section 119 the deaf witness should also be included.
Jeremy Taylor said, “A good law without execution is like an unperformed promise.” The Government has taken giant strides by making necessary changes in our legislation but implementation wise the initiatives still leave a lot to be desired. Just as human rights are inalienable from an individual, language is also a part of one’s entity and both of them are inter-reliant. So we cannot deny one and hope to establish the other.