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Supreme Court issues notice seeking directions to provide sign language interpreter for press briefings conducted by PM

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The Supreme Court recently issue notice on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking directions to the Centre and states to provide in-frame sign language interpreter in all the official press briefings conducted by the Prime Minister, other Ministers of the Union Government, Chief Ministers of all states and other Ministers of the state government, in accordance with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016.

The Division Bench of Justice S. Abdul Nazeer and Justice Vikram Nath heard the PIL filed by visually impaired lawyer and disability rights activist M. Karpagam from Chennai through Advocate (AOR) Nupur Kumar in which all states are parties.

According to the PIL, Census 2011 estimates that nearly 2.1 % of the population in India is disabled. But, as per the World Bank estimates, nearly 10 to 15 % of the population in the country is suffering from some kind of disability. With the enactment of the 2016 Act, including 21 different types of disability, the numbers are estimated to plummet. The Census 2011 estimates that, disability population in speech is 7.5%, and in hearing 5.8% of the total estimates.

The petitioner submitted that sign language is the bridge that connects us to the world of those who have an impaired hearing or verbal disability. It helps the deaf and the dumb to communicate with the people around them and vice versa. It enables them to understand the world around them through visual descriptions and in turn, contribute to society. Indian sign language is a language in itself like any other language. It has its own complex grammatical structure and rules, its own phonology, morphology and syntax. It is a complex visual spatial language, involving a combination of hand shapes, facial expressions, lip patterns and body language.

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It is highlighted in the petition that press briefings are important meetings held by the Prime Minister, the President and other Ministers, including Chief Minister of the States to apprise the public at large about the various developments in the Government, initiatives, new schemes and projects for the people and other information of public interest. However, all the press briefings held in India are neither inclusive nor accessible. These press briefings serve to be an important way to create awareness and educate the general public about the various developments in the Country.

The pandemic brought out the importance of accessibility of information to the disabled, especially persons with hearing and speech impairment. That while the entire world was gripped with the uncertainty of the pandemic, when the world was in facing a period of public health hazard and economic emergency, all took to the television to get timely updates on issues relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, information relating to vaccination drives, schemes of the Government etc. The Prime Minister, Health Minister and the Health Secretary had daily presence on the television. However, all these news briefings did not provide in-frame sign language interpreters even during the peak of the pandemic where information was essential. Resultantly, these briefings could not be understood by the hearing and speech impaired sections of the public due to the non-inclusion of the sign language interpreters, the petitioner alleged.

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The petitioner further submitted that during National/ State emergencies and natural disasters etc., crucial information relating to public benefit schemes, helplines etc., are communicated by the Governments via press briefings. The absence of sign language interpreters in such situations impedes the access of the deaf persons to a government program or benefit, thereby rendering them to be treated in an inequitable manner and establishing their lack of meaningful access to such programs and/or benefits.

“The Karuthalode Keralam is a news programme in sign language to present the highlights of the Kerala Chief Minister’s press briefing on Covid-19. However, this is also not a comprehensive coverage of all news briefings of the CM but only the highlights. This is the first of one such effort in the State, but not at par with other countries where there is sign language interpreter on-platform along with the Head of the State during the daily press briefings,”

-the petition said.

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“The United Nations CRPD is a comprehensive document accepted internationally and sets the framework for member states to protect the rights of disabled people. It is the first convention to give equal status to signed and spoken languages as stated in Article 2,

“Language’ includes spoken and signed languages and other forms of non-spoken languages. This allows for the re-interpretation of previous declarations and conventions such that any mention of language now includes sign languages,”

-the PIL reads.

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