A woman’s endeavour to help the differently abled.
By Priyanka Kalra
Let the story and initiative of Ruma Roka be the inspiration you need to bring a positive change in your life and the lives of others. Ruma Roka was born in privilege and health, but she made these her tools to bring change in  society. Ruma set up Noida Deaf Society (NDS) in 2005. She started her endeavour from a small two-bed room flat training just two kids at her residence and grew the initiative into something much bigger. This exclusive WE interview focuses on how Ruma Roka has helped change the lives of many.

What made you start this endeavour (NDS)?
A long time after I got married, I wanted to start a school and do something of value. I always found myself to be fortunate and I wanted to give back by starting a school. I do not have any deaf person in my family, but one day I saw this show on Doordarshan news where the anchor was interpreting the news in sign language, which made me curious. That is when my search and  journey began.

What is the challenging part of working with hearing impaired youth?

The challenging part is firstly learning sign language and then to find a way to train the deaf through sign language, so they can become a productive part of our society. That was the biggest challenge when I started, but challenges also go through a period of change. There are new challenges at every step. When I started, the biggest challenge was learning the sign language and after that the second challenge was to get teachers who know sign language or train them in sign language.

After a few years the challenge became about training the students. The students come from very poor literacy backgrounds since they studied in school with teachers who only speak. As a result they can’t understand their teachers. So, the challenge then was how to create the training modules and curriculum. The challenges have  grown, challenges have been overcome and that is how I’ve grown as a human.

What kind of training does Noida Deaf Society provide the students with?

We started with teaching the students how to read and write and how to communicate with the mainstream world through writing. Then we developed our IT curriculum. Then, with the input of the students, we developed a vocational curriculum so their learning ends up in employment and self-reliance. The curriculum is all visual based, computer-based training. All in all, our mission is mainstreaming the deaf through vocational training and helping them get employed.

After years of training and working with children and youth with hearing impairment, what do you feel are the strengths specific to them?

They are wonderful visual learners. They are also great visual workers. They have a knack for any work which is visual in nature like data entry jobs, ITs and banks, the service industries, retail and hospitality. Their impeccable hand-eye coordination, the fact that they are not distracted by noise around them, makes them very efficient employees. They win employee of the month awards regularly. They are just looking for a compassionate environment where they can be part of the company and add value.

Do companies respond positively towards hiring hearing impaired youth?

Earlier, 10 years ago, when we would approach companies, the response would be lukewarm and the companies seemed nervous. They were worried about the low education levels and the difficulty in communication, and these are very valid questions. When we work with the companies, we teach them sign language and sensitise the people who will be working with deaf people. We create an environment where it is a win-win situation for them and our deaf youth. The difference in perspective is taking place.

Now, companies come back and rehire from us because they have seen the work productivity of the trained deaf youth. This isn’t about charity anymore.

What are some common stereo­types and myths surrounding the deaf that you would like to break?

I believe that ‘disabled’ does not connote ‘no ability’. For me I would like to change the sympathy and pity that people give the deaf. Look at them as a productive human resource instead of pitying them. No one is perfect. So, why write off an entire community without under­standing what they can do. That is the stereotype we would like to break with the help of NDS.

What are your future plans for the NDS and the progress of the hearing impaired?

We have already worked with 5400 deaf youths and got more than 1200 youths employed. We would like to continue this and reach out to as many people as possible. Open more centres so more youth can get trained and get employed, where teachers can be trained and corporates will come and look at us as a resource centre. That is the way forward.

What are your expectations from the government to help the cause?

We are already working with the government in many shapes and forms. The new project by PM Modi, the ‘Skill India’ campaign, endorses the fact that there are millions of disabled youth who can be skilled for becoming a part of our productive society. Other than that, the government gives inputs in how to skill the disabled youth. But we require some more support in terms of infrastructure. We hope the government reaches out and supports us as partners.

What is your advice to the friends, family and the general population on how to treat people with hearing impairment?

India is a diverse country. Please look at my deaf children as a different community with a different language. There are so many deaf people, but there are more of us and we should take the step forward to connect with them as a society.

For the parents, I want them to know that your children are perfectly able. Please learn sign language for them and reach out to them with your heart. Don’t treat them with sympathy, but empathy.

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