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Sri Lanka Terribly short of sign language interpreters

27 March 2018 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


As of now there is a deaf and hearing impaired population of more than 400,000 in Sri Lanka. Although suffering from this disability, they are full citizens of this country having the same needs as any other stakeholder. If you come to think of it, what difficulties must the deaf and hearing impaired be facing if they are not able to understand what is related using spoken language? How would a deaf or hearing impaired individual get his requirements fulfilled in a hospital or a police station if he or she is not able to understand what is spoken by the officers who are on duty?

In all these processes, an important middle-person whose role is crucial for those in this cross section of the population to access and benefit from public services is the Sign Language Interpreter. A Sign Language Interpreter is someone who helps hearing impaired or deaf individuals understand a spoken language by converting it into sign language.   

It was alarming to know when Shammi Dias and Dinesh Manjula Fernando spoke to the Daily Mirror that there are only six (6) Sign Language Interpreters to serve the entire island at the moment. (They are Shammi Dias, Janaka Gunawardhane, Kanchana Priyadarshanie, Deshika Senevirathne, Niluka Sanjeewani and Dinesh Manjula Fernando). Compared to the 400,000 or more who need their services on a daily basis, this number is way off proportion.   

While three of them, including Dinesh and Shammi are based in the Department of Social Services, Sethsiripaaya, the others are stationed across three of the four vocational centres around the country. Their work load is huge. The six have allocated themselves 3 to 4 districts and try to provide their services as efficiently as possible.   

Dias, the first ever Sign Language Interpreter appointed in Sri Lanka, spoke of the nature and the quantum of work included in the services 
they perform.   

“As Sign Language Interpreters serving the Government, we are bound to provide our services whenever requested. When some information is required to be communicated to a deaf or hearing impaired person, who seeks the service of a public establishment like in a hospitals, police stations and courts, we are obliged to go there and assist the process of communication. There are days when we have to go to three of four courts in different parts of the island to offer a translator’s service for deaf people who are either victims, alleged perpetrators or witnesses in litigation of very sensitive private cases like rape, divorce and domestic violence. One case is heard over several sessions and we must somehow attend each session.   


Not all the 400,000 deaf and hearing impaired population is educated

Attentive and sensitive   

In addition to this we have to translate news broadcasts through television (Rupavahini Channel) every night as part of our job. The six of us are always engaged in some work or the other and it is a responsibility that we shoulder when performing our jobs. We are aiding a destitute section of our population and we must be very attentive and also sensitive to their needs,” said Shammi.   


When asked about translating Tamil language into sign language Fernando said that the situation is more difficult.   

“There is even more difficulty when it comes to extending our services to the North and East where there must be someone to translate what is spoken in Tamil to Sinhalese and it is then only that we can interpret it in sign language to the individual in need. There is no one competent in Tamil among us, so when it comes to translating Tamil spoken language, the work is doubled,” said Fernando.   


When inquired about the steps already taken by the State in furtherance of serving the needs of the deaf and hearing impaired community, Fernando cited a few instances, mostly spearheaded by initiatives of the international community.   

“With the recognition of sign language as a separate language which must be respected in the international community, and the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities last year by the Government, steps have been taken to uplift services to differently-abled people as a whole. The most important commitment under the convention is to provide full access to services designed for disabled people of all kinds.   

 “Like with the need to build elevators and accessible pathways for wheelchair users, providing access to services for the deaf and hearing impaired is to make communication possible or easier for them when utilising public services. In pursuance of this, there is a six-month course conducted for Government officials where basic sign language is taught to them, so that they can at least help the deaf and hearing impaired people by rendering their services. This is done to provide officials with the correct knowledge of sign language and direct them to the correct portal. A growing number of deaf and hearing impaired people are benefiting from this type of service in banks and other institutions as a result of the presence of officials who have received a training,” said Fernando.   

There are days when we have to go to three of four courts in different parts of the island to offer a translator’s service for deaf people who are either victims, alleged perpetrators or witnesses in litigation of very sensitive private cases like rape



One year diploma   

“In response to a complaint made by the deaf and hearing impaired population that there are not enough sign language interpreters, after overcoming bureaucratic and funding challenges, the Department of Social Services, the Ministry of Social Empowerment headed by Minister S.B. Dissanayake, the National Institute of Social Development and the Department of Divineguma in a collective initiative trained 50 people belonging to Samurdhi families from all districts except the North and East to function as Sign Language Interpreters. These language interpreters after completing an year-long diploma received appointments. This programme was strengthened after a cabinet paper was passed. They will soon join us, after which our work will be distributed among them. They will be located in district hospitals, courts and District Secretariats, and also schools for the deaf and hearing impaired and vocational centres. Once the bureaucratic processes are completed and more interpreters are trained, there would ideally be an interpreter in every public institution and establishment ready to serve the deaf and hearing impaired people,” 
opined Shammi.   

Answering a question whether there were any Tamil-speaking persons who were trained for this job, Shammi said that it would happen only in a second stage of the training where half the batch will be recruited from the North and East. This recruitment is scheduled for May.   

How they started   

The reasons for Shammi and Fernando to become Sign Language Interpreters, given that it is less-known occupation, are personal. Shammi’s aunt and uncle, with whom she had spent most of her childhood, are deaf. Her uncle, an artist, who had been in the first committee formed by the National Institute of Education, has frequently had deaf and hearing impaired persons visiting his home. Fernando has forged close friendships with his travel companions on his way to work. These people were hard of hearing. It was by chance that Fernando learned sign language to communicate with his friends. Some of the other interpreters had worked with deaf and other disabled people in NGOs and later decided to take to this profession.   

The Director of the Department of Social Services Wajira Kamburugamuwa also reiterated the great extent of work carried out by the existing sing language interpreters as they sometimes have to travel from one end of the island to the other to offer their services. He also said that arrangements are in place to increase the salaries of Government officials who are trained in sign language. He called for more support from the funding avenues and the community at large to help the deaf and hearing impaired and other disabled people to do better in life.   

Shammi and Fernando spoke in general about the situation of the deaf and hearing impaired population in Sri Lanka.   

“Not all the 400,000 deaf and hearing impaired population is educated. Affluent parents have admitted them to schools, but there are so many deaf and impaired people who have never been to a school, particularly in rural areas. Even if they attend school, not many continue till the Advanced Level Examination. They even learn sign language on their own, at their homes, and brush it up when entering the society. Because we have worked extensively in all parts of the country, we are well versed in the varied informal signs used by them and are able to interpret to them. Deaf and hearing impaired people are comfortable communicating with us, so sometimes even if they have issues with paying the water or electricity bills, they head to the Department for Social Services,” they said.   


Shammi and Fernando opined that Sri Lanka is not sensitive to the needs of these people. They said that Sri Lankans are used to looking at someone with a disability with sympathy. “What we need to realize is that the disabilities in these people must not be allowed to prevent them from functioning as ordinary citizens. The society should be more aware and public institutions must be well equipped to serve a disabled person and not compel them to be isolated from the rest of the society because of this condition, which has no cure,” they added.   

There is no one competent in Tamil among us, so when it comes to translating Tamil spoken language, the work 
is doubled





Bureaucratic delay whilst deaf and hearing aid population deprived of access to public service

2000 – First two Sign Language Interpreters appointed in the Department of Social Services   

2012 – Five more Sign Language Interpreters recruited, making it a total of 7 Interpreters   

2016 – Only 6 interpreters performing services to more than 400,000 deaf and hearing impaired people. The only Interpreter who could translate Tamil into sign language has left the country.   

2017 – 50 people trained to become Sign Language Interpreters   

2018 – Trained 50 yet to join the Government staff Sign Language Interpreters to Tamil speaking population are yet to be trained.   


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