Sign language is such a beautiful way to communicate. Abstract thoughts and words transform themselves into something visual and concrete and meanings we hadn’t appreciated suddenly emerge. Contradictions too!
For example, Kashvi, one of our kids, learned the sign for “Sadness” in class a few days ago. For the next week, every time I met her, she would shout out gleefully: “Udhaas! (Sadness)!” and make the sign for it perfectly, all the while with a big grin on her face.
Kashvi isn’t deaf, but that’s not why her sign created a touch of cognitive dissonance.
It was rather because when you sign, you do it with your whole being. Your facial expressions, your body language, your tone of self – they are supposed to match with the word you are expressing. Kashvi’s didn’t. It was hilarious.
I stayed at three different Lemon Tree Hotels last week. It’s a chain I prefer because, aside from being sparkly, reasonably priced and comfortable, they proactively hire disabled people – what more do you want?
Just one small feature: Lemon Tree has a lot of deaf people working as room attendants, wait staff and bell hops. So throughout the hotel, you will find pads of paper and pencils conveniently located, just in case you have to communicate with someone who is deaf and you don’t happen to know sign language.
I like this approach. Anticipate challenges and provide solutions. So practical. But it only happens if it needs to. If you don’t hire disabled people, it would never occur to you to have pads and pencils scattered around the place.
At the Lemon Tree in Delhi, a guy named Naresh carried my bags to my room. I thanked him in sign, but I couldn’t remember anything else. So a bit later, I googled “Indian Sign Language YouTube”. An amazing set of video instructions popped up – all hosted by my dear friend Arun Rao.
ASIDE: I once attended an incredibly boring WHO conference on disability in Delhi. The only fun thing about it was that Arun was the sign language interpreter. Pompous Old Windbag after Pompous Old Windbag got up to present and each speech was worse than the previous one. But strangely, the sign language was animated, engaged and interactive. Arun gestured away to a table full of avid, deaf recipients. He would sign and they would respond. Sometimes it seemed like they were discussing; other times it was like an argument. At the break, I went up and I asked him what was going on. “These guys are crashing bores,” I said. “How can you make it look so interesting?”
“What can I do?,” he said. “They don’t realize the potential of their own material.”
I memorized a few key signs and the next time I met Naresh in the lobby, I tried one out. He was delighted. Then I showed him the Arun Rao videos on YouTube and signed that Arun was my friend.
Magic. “He’s MY friend!” he signed back. “I KNOW HIM TOO!”
I didn’t have the words to take it any further. It didn’t matter. We had connected.