Did you happen to catch the opening to her speech? Did you realize what she just did there?
In the space of a heartbeat, social activist Ruma Roka managed to intrigue you, puzzle you and frustrate you by simply pantomiming and not uttering a single word. Did you wonder what she was doing at first? Did you feel annoyed at the absolutely confounding introduction?
And did it in fact, hit you like a lightening bolt, that she was trying to make you understand what it’s like, being deaf?
It hit me.
In this brilliant and truly inspiring video, Ruma Roka goes on to describe how it feels like to be deaf and how every hearing-impaired person must come to terms with this incredibly unfair inability. Deaf people cannot understand you ; they cannot consider basic sensory information like tone, voice, inflection, noise, volume, pitch, bass, tenor or treble. They can never appreciate the beauty of simple, everyday occurrences which we take for granted so freely- the whoosh of the wind, the melody of a songbird, the strumming of a guitar, the clinking of glasses, the patter of the rain, the whirring of a fan, the footfalls of a housemate, the engine of a car, the cheers in a stadium, the ticking of a clock, the barking of a dog- I pick these things at random as I write, and I marvel, about the deep abyss of silence that greets these people every day. I wonder, how lonely it must be to feel like no one can hear you, because you can’t even hear yourself. It is only an abundance of thoughts, perceivable vibrations and carefully observed sights, that make up their world in its entirety.
I would never ask you to imagine what it’s like because, let’s face it, we will never be able to empathize with them to that degree. We can’t comprehend what it’s like to function on an everyday basis with half-information. We can’t even begin to envisage what it’s like, not to hear our own sobs or giggles. So No, imagining it will not quite help and because Ruma understood that, she chose instead to bring to your attention the biggest problem that deaf people face today.
Discrimination. Apathy. Disregard. Dismissal. Ignorance. These are the things that make it difficult to be deaf. It is not the impairment itself that requires our attention, because we can’t make them hear any better. It’s our treatment of them that demands special attention. Like Ruma rightly claims, deaf people do not get the right kind of education that would allow them to enjoy ‘equal opportunities’. Without that education, they cannot hope to stand a chance when it comes to employment, especially when even a completely fit person is facing tough competition. Add to that the lack of awareness about sign language, and it becomes virtually impossible to communicate effectively with a deaf person. Did you know there are various forms of sign language, right down to indigenous gestures to the more sophisticated types, such as ISL, BSL and ASL (Indian, British, American)?. Why is it that people are in such a rush to learn new languages like French and Spanish and Japanese even when they’re not actually talking to natives of those countries and yet, nobody even considers learning sign language, when a section of deaf people exists in every nation?
The answer to that, in harsh but realistic terms, is that ‘It simply isn’t our problem’. It isn’t our lookout whether deaf people can convey or comprehend. We can’t be bothered with things like whether they get jobs or get married or have a family or live happy lives.
But does that mean deaf people don’t deserve a chance? Does it mean that if nature has apparently deemed them unfit, it also condones abject indifference?
It is this moral dilemma which makes it hard to bring societal change- that and the lack of awareness. Ruma knew that, she knew that very well, so she set up an institution that carves out an illustrative syllabus which trains these wonderful, intelligent and diligent people to learn basic skills that will make them eligible for jobs. Not only does such a venture require courage and virtue, but it also asks for great compassion and patience. For it isn’t just about teaching them and then leaving them to hunt for jobs. They require encouragement, guidance, interpreters, social contact,s but most of all, considerate people who are ready to give them a chance.
As Ruma proves, this is not only a possible feat but also an achievable one. At the end of her enlightening speech, she speaks about all her kids who have gone on to be hired by various prestigious companies. Since deaf people cannot hear a thing, their attention is absolutely riveted to their work, which makes them dedicated, focused, meticulous employees and valuable assets.
So what are the things we can do to help the Deaf Community?
First, learning ISL wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
Second, spending time with NGOs and non-profit organization working with deaf people will introduce you to this silent yet fascinating community of people who aren’t very different from us.
Third, encourage more and more people to not only learn but also converse in this language.
Fourth, if you have mastered the language, volunteer at a Deaf Society to aid the organization in teaching deaf people life skills, providing them with education and other activities that will make them independent and self-sufficient. The objectives would obviously depend on the charter of the society.
And lastly, spread awareness about Sign Language and hearing-impaired people. Tweet it, Facebook it, Blog it, Digg it, Google plus it, Wiki it- do whatever you can to keep this issue alive.
And if Ruma’s efforts and my arguments fail to convince you, if you still can’t fathom why anyone would go to such lengths to help them, if you are still deliberating on whether to focus on your career and personal goals or make a difference, remind yourself :
They are Deaf. Not Dumb. We are Human. Not Numb.
Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012. You can visit their site at
For more about Ruma Roka’s Noida Deaf Society, visit