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On Flat and Round Worlds: Deaf Communities in Bangalore

Examination of the exchange between American Deaf young adults and deaf Indian students at an empowerment camp in Bangalore yielded significant insights. The Americans articulated a universal Deaf culture and community while the Indian "elite" students refused to mix with their compatriots.












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  • exploring the stakes of his perspective for

    On Flat and Round Worlds:
    thinking about the lived experiences of

    deaf people in Bangalore and how human

    Deaf Communities in Bangalore

    rights discourses around deafness travel.

    In particular, I am absorbed in analysing how this proliferating and prevalent michele friedner perspective of “the flat world” plays out in

    Examination of the exchange between American Deaf young adults and deaf Indian students at an empowerment camp in Bangalore yielded significant insights. The Americans articulated a universal Deaf culture and community while the Indian “elite” students refused to mix with their compatriots.

    Michele Friedner (michelefriedner@yahoo. com) is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.

    Economic & Political Weekly

    september 20, 2008

    would like to begin this article by situating the city of Bangalore within India, and within the world at large, by invoking the popular New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman. In his widely read book The World Is Flat, Friedman (2005) writes about a realisation that he had while spending time at Bangalore’s new information technology (IT) headquarters and campuses. In particular, during interviews with IT leaders on golf courses and in air-conditioned steel and glass offices, Friedman comes to the conclusion that we now live in a flat world. He bases this conclusion on his belief that outsourcing has created new opportunities for intrepid Indian entrepreneurs which ultimately trickle down and create both a new elite and middle class. While Friedman is writing specifically about transnational flows of capital in the form of outsourcing, I am interested in

    another segment of the population of Bangalore: deaf young adults who attend vocational training programmes founded by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) financed by international capital. As Friedman’s book, and the IT boom in general, have been synonymous with Bangalore in the popular imagination, I am interested in critically analysing other perspectives and experiences of both horizontality and verticality (or in Friedman’s words, flatness and roundness).1 I want to note too that I also see this article speaking back to Arjun Appadurai’s (2001) work on Mumbaibased urban and transnational politics in which he analyses what he calls “horizontal networking” without looking at the power-laden place-based verticality inherent in such networking. It seems to me that Appadurai is entreating us to see a flat world of activism as well.

    I am concerned with the relationships of these young adults with each other


    and with Deaf international visitors.2 I suggest, inspired by Lisa Rofel’s (2007) work in China on internationalist gay discourses, that we need to look at both why certain discourses are picked up (or not picked up) by local actors and how they are adapted – if they in fact are. I also suggest that thinking about discourse circulations in terms of impact models is not productive as it ignores on the ground practices that are active in terms of reception, adaptation, and manipulation. As such, this is not a story of discourses, and identities made local or particular, but rather, it is a story of discourses and identities that are created through multiple articulations [Hall 1980]. This is also a story of powerladen encounters that appear to take place on flat or horizontal terrain but that I argue are permeated by inequality.

    Let me now explain where I am going with this. I conducted fieldwork in the summer of 2007 with deaf young adults at the Association for People with Disability (APD), Bangalore’s oldest NGO for people with disabilities. The majority of my time was passed in APD’s industrial training centre observing interactions between rural and urban deaf young adults from diverse backgrounds. These potential students are recruited through APD’s community-based rehabilitation outreach efforts, word of mouth, and involvement with local and state-wide deaf schools. Non-local students, mostly from rural areas, are housed in hostels for the duration of their courses, and fees are administered on a sliding scale basis. Deaf students at APD receive training in one of the three areas: welding, electrical work, and computer training and all three programmes are housed in a large industrial hangar. There are few architectural boundaries that divide the space into three distinct programmes yet one only needs to spend a few hours within the industrial training centre to see that the programmes are quite delineated and separate (and not equal).

    The Chosen Ones

    In order to receive computer training, deaf students are required to know how to read and write English and as a result, these students tend to be wealthier and they usually have had a stronger primary and secondary education, mostly in the English language. After finishing their computer training, deaf students hope to find jobs in the IT sector, as web designers, animators, or doing data entry. These students are not required to wear uniforms and so they walk around in brightly coloured Indian clothing and western-style jeans. In contrast, the welding and electrical students are required to wear khaki or olive uniforms daily with the exception of one day a week when they are permitted to wear street clothing. According to the teachers and the administrators of the industrial training centre, a distinct status hierarchy exists with computer training at the top, followed by electrical training, with welding being the least prestigious programme. In contrast, the welding and the electrical students tend to be less affluent and they come from Kannada speaking backgrounds; instruction for these courses is in Kannada. Those doing welding and electrical training hope to find employment within large government industries and factories.

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    Despite a shared sensory experience of deafness and a common sign language, deaf students in the computer training programme and those in the welding and electrical programmes rarely interact and I would argue that these students belong to different deaf communities, if they belong to deaf communities at all. As one of the training centre’s teachers told me: “The students in the computer training programme do not like to mix with the other students. They think that they are better than the other students”. I also heard similar sentiments from students in the welding and electrical programmes who often felt rebuffed by their peers in the computer training programme. In addition to not seeing the formation of a deaf identity, I also did not see any practice of affinity which is supposedly predicated on commonalities across difference.

    I want to note here that computer training is considered to be magical, a space of infinite possibility although there are no clear pathways to employment via this training. It can also be seen as gendered as it is more socially acceptable for young women to receive computer training as welding and electrical work can be seen as dirty, as family members often told me. On one occasion, I witnessed an interaction between a female electrical student’s older brother and a teacher which clearly illustrated this. The student’s brother came to APD with the intention of removing his sister from the electrical training programme and enrolling her instead in the computer programme. He stated that electrical work was inappropriate for girls and that computer training was cleaner. The electrical teacher begged him not to do this as she argued that it would be better for his sister to first receive electrical training as a foundation, and then receive computer training. She also argued that the electrical programme provided students with a better education and an actual diploma while the computer course was of dubious quality and only resulted in a certificate.

    Many of the deaf students in the computer training programme have had exposure to what I call “global Deafness” – the emergence of a normative set of understandings through the practices of international rehabilitation institutions and organisations which disseminate a highly specific concept of Deafness based upon ideas of a universal Deaf culture and community.3 Through internet chat groups, deaf social events, deaf religious organisations, and visits by members of northern Deaf organisations, these students learn about global deafness. In addition, many of these deaf students attended a primary and secondary school that was started with the help of an American Deaf missionary; this school has been influenced by this missionary’s attempts to stress the importance of deaf identity and empowerment. In fact, many older graduates of this school who actually came into contact with this missionary, “White Joe”, often reminisce about what he taught them of Deaf pride and the importance of valuing sign language and other deaf people. These deaf Indians often see themselves as being part of a deaf community that is not bounded by place – although they do not see themselves as being part of the same community as the electrical and welding students. As such deafness articulates with class and creates forms of inclusion and exclusion.

    Divided ‘Community’

    In contrast to the computer training students, many of the deaf students in the electrical and welding programmes have never used a computer and they are learning a standardised sign language for the first time as young adults as they did not attend deaf schools in which sign language was part of the curriculum, These students are learning English as well as the majority of them attended Kannada language primary and secondary schools. These students do not have the same conceptions of deafness that their peers in the computer training programme do and do not think of deafness in terms of identity, community, or culture. The divide between the computer students and the welding and electrical students is interesting on another level: job placements in the new IT sector provide significantly higher salaries and are a product of neoliberal economic policies especially in the sense that the rather limited 1995 Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act does not apply to the private sector. As such, deaf employees are hired under the murky mandate of corporate social responsibility.4

    On the other hand, the electrical and welding positions are mostly in large government factories, relics of a past in which the Indian state engaged in centralised planning. Now I am worried here as I do not want to give you a neat and clean binary: flat versus non-flat, deafness as identity and culture versus deafness not as identity and culture, neoliberal employment versus public sector employment – obviously there are exceptions to this and the lived realities of these students are extremely multifaceted and complex and do not neatly adhere to these ideal types at all. I would expect these binaries to become even more ambiguous when actual employment rates are examined as those receiving electrical and welding training have a much higher employment placement rate than those receiving computer training due to the fact that the primary demand in the IT sector is for people who can provide telephone support therefore excluding deaf people. In fact, when I attended recruitment sessions held by business process outsourcing corporations, deaf prospective employees were told that there were no opportunities for them – unless they had highly specialised data entry, computer programming, or accounting skills. I point this out because I do not want to provide too rosy a picture of the IT sector and what it means for deaf employment. Anyway, let me move on and the reasons why I am making and unsettling this binary here will hopefully become clear.

    Deaf Global Culture

    In the beginning of June, APD hosted the 2007 American-Indian Deaf Empowerment Camp, a seven-day programme in which a delegation of eight Deaf young adults from an American NGO, Global Reach Out (GRO), came to Bangalore to work with deaf Indians and, in their words, to “empower”, “encourage”, and “support” them in their struggle for Deaf human rights. This was just one of GRO’s programmes and the organisation sends delegations of Deaf American university students and recent graduates to Thailand, the Philippines, and Kenya for similar week-long programmes. I suggest that this, and similar programmes, are motivated

    Economic & Political Weekly

    september 20, 2008


    by global Deafness in their attempts to share, and spread, their specific understanding of Deafness as culture. Interestingly, the Deaf Americans on the Bangalore programme were all either students or recent graduates of Gallaudet University and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, the United States’ premier (and only) Deaf institutions of higher education. The eight Indian delegates who were chosen to participate in the programme included three graduates of APD’s computer training programme – two who had gone on for higher education at a college now accepting deaf students and providing interpreting services and one who was working as a web designer – three electrical students, a deaf teacher working in APD’s electrical programme, and a deaf community-based rehabilitation (CBR) teacher from a rural village in Karnataka state – a very diverse group that could in no way be considered a unified deaf community. In fact, throughout the programme, the computer training graduates and the other deaf students did not mix except when required to and they competed for access to the American delegates.

    During the eight-day programme, the group held a day long workshop and exchange on problems facing deaf individuals in India. According to the organisers, the workshop’s goal was to brainstorm, problem-solve, and collectively create solutions. It was interesting to observe the dynamics within this workshop as the American delegates were the ones mostly contributing the problems – lack of sign language interpreters, lack of closed captioning, and teachers who do not know sign language, and the APD students were mostly silent during this process. The culmi nation of these problem-solving sessions was the performance of skits in which problems were miraculously and effortlessly solved through individual advocacy, perseverance, and hard work. Throughout the seven-day programme, I interviewed both Indian and American delegates and I learned that the web designer was hoping to wrangle an American visa out of this programme, that the electrical students and the APD CBR teacher very much enjoyed interacting with the Americans although they did not understand what the words empowerment, rights, or support meant. They knew how to create the signs with their hands and bodies but they did not know the concepts behind them – it was mimicry.

    I was especially interested in the experience of the CBR teacher, an initially shy 26-year-old who paid almost half of his monthly salary to attend this programme.5 Throughout the programme, his communication with the Americans very much consisted in the sharing of jokes, nudges, and the making of faces. None of his experiences as a poor deaf young adult working in rural areas was brought to the fore or discussed. Thus it seemed to me that this camp, for the deaf Indians, wound up being a seven-day social programme as there was no articulation of discourse with their everyday lives. I view this not as a critical event, in the sense that Veena Das (1995) uses it in which people develop new understandings about their lives, institutions, or society, but rather as a spectacular event. For the deaf Indians, this seven-day programme was a rupture in the ordinary yet with seemingly no lasting effects.

    Remaining Apolitical

    APD did not sponsor this programme but it served as a host for the opening and closing ceremonies and it offered the use of its van and facilities. At the current moment, APD does not conduct empowerment or leadership trainings for its students although the organisation networks and works closely with other NGOs which do provide such training. It is interesting to note that according to its executive director and a prominent funding agency in India which provides funding for disability- related social justice programmes, APD is being pushed by funders to provide such training as it is more politically acceptable to provide a grant for workshops on rights, empowerment, and advocacy than for a workshop on computer-assisted welding techniques [Fisher 1997]. It should also be noted that APD enjoys a position within the political field of disability rights activism that can be considered apolitical. That is, APD works very closely with the Karnataka state government and it is extremely careful to not antagonise the state. It does not actively participate in any protests or programmes.

    On December 3, 2007, the Karnataka State Disabled Peoples’ Federation held a protest on World Disability Day. On this day, the Karnataka state government holds an annual public relations spectacle in which it sets up a tent on the Bangalore parade grounds and serves disabled people with buns and juice. In a break with the ordinary, the Karnataka State Disabled Peoples’ Federation members and allies came to the parade grounds but refused buns and juice. Instead, they chanted: “No to buns and juice, yes to rights”. APD refused to support them although some of APD’s students did join them and as such did not get their buns and juice. I am interested in seeing how APD may change in the future and I am curious about whether it will be required by funders to change. Is it not acceptable for it to just provide good vocational training services? What are its responsibilities, as a highly respected disability NGO, in terms of providing rights-based education and leadership training? While I take seriously James Ferguson’s (1997 [1990]) admonition to recognise that the technical is political and while I am very aware that vocational training is an anti-politics machine in its own right, I am also (perhaps nostalgically) drawn to what seems like a relic of the past. In a present in which NGOs stress empowerment, self-advocacy, and

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    community. In returning to Friedman’s claim that the world is flat and that there is a level playing field, I would argue that my research among deaf young adults and my exploration of the d/Deaf playing field leads me to believe that while discourse can and does travel, there are no guarantees of what it might (or might not) do on the ground. While hands and bodies can mimic signs, it is not clear what these signs “do” for those doing the mimicking. Here I find James Ferguson’s (2006) work on the relationship between “Africa” and “the West” to be productive. As Ferguson writes:

    Claims of likeness, in this context, constitute not a copying, but a shadowing, even a haunting – a declaration of comparability, an aspiration to membership and inclusion in the world, and sometimes also an assertion of responsibility” [Ferguson 2006: 17].

    It seems to me that Ferguson is attempting to create conditions of possibility for exploring elements within relationality, or specifically, for understanding how relationality is created – and more importantly, for understanding what relationality does both “here” and “there”, for “us” and “them”. How are claims of horizontality haunted by verticality, flatness haunted by roundness? How do we come to see, and understand, a world that is sculpted by multiple and often competing articulations which are accompanied by their own sedimentations of both horizontality and verticality?


    4 According to a September 2005, Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, there are presently no clear guidelines for defining what corporate social responsibility actually is either nationally or internationally. As many of the corporations hiring deaf young adults in India are American companies and therefore obligated to abide by the more comprehensive Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at home, it seems to me that their attempts to traffic in the corporate social responsibility label abroad is especially . problematic. Also interesting is the way that hiring people with disabilities by IT corporations is often touted as corporate social responsibility.

    5 This programme was not free for the Indian participants. They were required to pay Rs 1,000, the equivalent of about $ 13.00 right now. This was a substantial sum for the electrical students and the APD teachers who participated. In conversations with two of the parents of these electrical students, I learned that they viewed this programme as an opportunity for their children to learn valuable skills and as such they were willing to pay for the programme.

    6 It should be noted that there is a new and dynamic Deaf organisation, the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) which started in 2005 in New Delhi and which has since been trying to organise nationally. The NAD’s first and current president is not deaf although he is fluent in sign language and is therefore able to communicate with the NAD’s constituents. He has been quite successful at networking with the nation-wide Disability Rights Group (DRG) and he has brought many deaf Indians to cross-disability protests.

    7 Here I am reminded of Veena Das and Renu Addlakha’s (2001) call to locate and track disability experience in a space other than the liberal public sphere.


    Appadurai, Arjun (2001): ‘Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics’, Environment & Urbanisation, 13(2), pp 23-44.

    Das, Veena (1995): Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

    Das, Veena and Addlakha Renu (2001): ‘Disability and Domestic Citizenship: Voice, Gender, and the Making of the Subject’, Public Culture 13(3), pp 511-32.

    Ferguson, James (2006): Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order, Duke University Press, Durham and London.

    – (1997 [1990]): The Anti-Politics Machine, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

    participation and in which self-help is the norm [e g, Mohan and Stokke 2000; John 2005; Nagar et al 2006], there is something oddly and hauntingly compelling about an industrial training centre which teaches technical skills, about a transparently vertical structure that comes without surprises or illusions of horizontality.

    Communication Barriers

    And what of the relation between deaf young adults and the larger disability movement in India? During interviews with disability rights leaders in India, these leaders expressed frustration about the marginal status of deaf people within the disability rights movement. In their experience, deaf people rarely come out to protest and they do not seem to understand the issues that the movement is based upon. My research shows me that this is not because of indifference but rather a result of substantial communication barriers that start in childhood when most deaf children are trained in the oral method as the prevailing view in India is that all deaf children can learn to speak. I was told this time and time again by government bureaucrats, school principals, and families. As a result, many of the deaf students in APD’s electrical and welding programmes have not had access to a complete language. Some of these students cannot read properly in Kannada and as such, it is extremely difficult for them to understand concepts as abstract as “human rights” or “disability rights”. This is perhaps one of the reasons why deaf people in India have not formed an activist bloc in the same ways that other disabled groups have, most notably blind and orthopaedically disabled groups.6 It remains to be seen whether deaf Indians will become Deaf Indians, if they are an as of yet unmobilised social movement, or if in fact an analytical error is being committed in locating “them” in the public sphere.7 What does it mean to talk about a “them” that is either static, emergent, or in motion?

    In conclusion, I am interested in thinking about the lived experiences of deaf young adults in India. In particular, I suggest that it might be more productive to think of multiple deaf communities within India as opposed to one monolithic

    1 I want to note that Friedman’s book spent substantial amounts of time on best-selling book lists within India as well and it helped to create an elite and middle class public organised around the idea of Bangalore as a cosmopolitan city similar to great western cities and exceptional within India. Thus, perhaps ironically, the book helped to proliferate a certain idea of the exceptionalism of Bangalore within India.

    2 Note that I choose mostly to use a lower case “d” deaf when writing about deaf Indian young adults and a capital “D” Deaf when writing about international and American Deaf people. I do this because many of these international and American Deaf people consider Deafness to be a cultural and linguistic, and not a medical, category. They choose to separate medical or biological deafness from cultural or linguistic Deafness and they view the Deaf community as a universal cultural community. In contrast, most of the deaf Indians who I have worked with for this article do not have the same experience of the Deaf community. This will be discussed in greater length within this article.

    3 In this article “global Deafness” and northern discourses around Deafness are being used synonymously.

    Fisher, William (1997): ‘Doing Good? The Politics and Anti-Politics of NGO Practices’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 26, pp 439-64.

    Friedman, Thomas (2005): The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Farr, Strauss, and Giroux, New York.

    Hall, Stuart (1980): ‘Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance’, Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, UNESCO, Paris, pp 305-45.

    John, Mary (2005): ‘Feminism, Poverty, and the Emergent Social Order’ in Raka Ray and Katzenstein, Mary Fainsod (eds), Social Movements in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

    Mohan, G and Stokke K (2000): ‘Participatory Development and Empowerment: The Dangers of Localism’, Third World Quarterly 21, pp 247-68.

    Nagar, Richa and Sangtin Writers Collective (2006): Playing with Fire, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

    Rofel, Lisa (2007): Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture, Duke University Press, Durham.

    United States Government Accountability Office (2005): ‘Globalisation: Observations on Federal Activities Related to Global Corporate Social Responsibility and Human Rights’, htttp://www.

    Economic & Political Weekly

    september 20, 2008

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