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We are in Pune to help local deaf people apply for driving licenses- In my opinion, albeit only based on 4 days of Indian roads and the near deaf experiences attached to any public outing, there’s no such thing as a ‘safe’ driver in India, driving safely in India will get you killed. The very basis for survival is to expect the unexpected, this is the only rule of the road- be fully prepared for the car in front to stop at any time, for there to be a motorbike or rickshaw traveling against the flow of traffic, or for a cow to randomly make an appearance.

Horns accompany you wherever you go, and many have argued that if you can’t hear the horn, you can’t manage the Indian traffic. I can understand this argument. I would want 10 senses and body armour, let alone my paltry five to tackle these streets, but research has shown that 95% of the information we use to drive is received visually, and that deaf drivers pose no more threats on the road than anyone else with the provision of an extra rear view mirror. After all, haven’t we all been in cars with the music blasting and the AC on, blocking out most if not all outside noise? And so below I’ve recounted the start of our attempt to get the ball rolling for these people who desperately wish to have the independence afforded by their own transport.

 

The room is silent but full of conversations. Some speak with directness and precision others communicate in grand gestures that include hands, arms and face. Immediately recognisable are the chatty-Kathys of the bunch. Deafness is new to me and I try to stare as I try to interpret some of the talk which is foreign in more ways than one!

We took the 4hour train ride from Mumbai to the hill town of Pune to act as witnesses and aids in what could be a huge step for India’s deaf community- we’re witnessing applications for driving licenses which have so far been denied to the deaf systematically. Since a 2011 High Court Judgment in which the HRLN represented the National Association for the Deaf against the Indian Government, those with hearing impairments and even full deafness have been legally entitled to apply for a full driving license  and drive provided they pass their test. But what is in writing so rarely translates into practice, so we’re here to hurry along the implementation of the non-discrimination judgement in the first of many targeted localities- How exactly this will happen has yet to be explained but I’m working on the assumption that we’re hoping for strength in number and then if we are rejected we will use that as grounds to file a complaint and start a case for discrimination…

The room grows from 15 to 50 and by 3 in the afternoon there are almost 100 hopeful faces. Orchestrating the whole thing is R, a blind man who works for the HRLN and B a barely literate young woman with sharp eyes whose hearing aid allows her to act as a translator. The gaze of the room is on them, while I go unnoticed right beside them- A and M have run off to find and make copies of the application form. We wait over an hour for their return, the others patient, happy to chat amongst themselves and occasionally wave to the front to relay a message.

My eyes keep catching on a man in the third row who looks like something straight out of a Bollywood line up.  Unlike many in the room he has no hearing aid, he spends much of his time observing the conversation, only occasionally raising his hands to speak in delicate, fluid motions. But for those rare moments, you would never know he was deaf. I can’t help wonder why the world would shun these people. I find out from R that in India, the stigma is somewhat rooted in reincarnation- those who suffer from disabilities must have done something terrible to deserve their plight in this life; paired with ignorance and resource shortages perhaps it isn’t surprising that disability rights are so easily swept under the carpet. I suppose India is uniquely unsuited to catering for the deaf, the blind, the less able… And yet the crowd around me consists of the warmest faces I’ve seen yet, despite their hardship they have kind eyes and keen smiles, quick to thank and lend a hand. This must be quite a momentous task for R who relies entirely on an interpreter, and yet he waits to be guided to his place, or approached for questions with a gentle smile. Is it patronising to consider this courage? I can’t imagine putting myself in the hands of strangers, literally following them blindly.

Eventually the girls get back and we start filling in forms, mimicking gestures, slowly picking up the signs for motorbike, gears, blood group , past, future and address. Its not easy, and not being able to listen to one explanation, we must go through the whole thing with each individual. A few hours later we pack up and make our way to a late lunch.

In brief the afternoon involved shuffling to 3 different restaurants (M mentioned chicken a little too loud in the first veggie restaurant and they insisted on moving us), then doing the same dance in search of a cheap hotel. We visit a few before returning to the first and settling in for the night. I wonder about R in this unknown place, on his own. Tomorrow we meet the group at the local DMV (RTO Pune) to submit the applications…

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