“I Am A Deaf Woman, And I Am Unstoppable!”

Last updated 9 Apr 2019 . 1 min read

rupmani chhetri un volunteer rupmani chhetri un volunteer

Born in Nepal as the only deaf child in the entire family, her family took her to Babas and Temples in Nepal hoping for a miracle and later to Siliguri! The family had moved from Nepal to Darjeeling for better work, but her world became no better because the focus was to try and improve her hearing instead of focusing on education, which for deaf children is via Indian Sign Language.

"I could not understand my parents and they could not understand me. Atop that, my grandmother told my dad not to waste money on my education. But, I was lucky to have a father who ignored his mother and tried searching for schools for me. But he could not afford special education for me. My family lived in a village where education wasn't that important," recalls Rupmani Chhetri, who is India's first UN Volunteer with a disability!

un volunteer for deaf

She is one of the strongest advocates of Sign Language - the utmost frequently used language in the deaf community. It is a language which talks with help of hands movements, body parts, and facial expression. And Rupmani asserts that not just the deaf people, everyone around them must learn it, to understand them to be able to relate to them.

Rupmani has surely come a long way in life, but not in personal life, as her parents still haven't learnt the sign language! "My sister did try to communicate using basic sign language, but that is the past. She lives in Israel, it’s been ages since we met and she must have forgotten the language by now," Rupmani writes to me. "My two brothers have learnt to use only basic sign language to talk to me through IMO or Skype or FB message. They are learning new technology. I have made a mark world over, but I still struggle to communicate with my own family, due to lack of awareness or maybe their will." And I am sure this is her biggest remorse in life because rather than talking about the great responsibility she has taken at the UN, she again drifts back to her childhood.

"Despite being uneducated, my parents tried to get me the best possible education. But whenever I tried expressing myself using sign language, people would label me MAD and would laugh at me. I constantly lived under fear, as I was unable to find my identity in this world, that fails to accept you with empathy.

I remember being extremely unhappy. I kept fighting inside out to explain what I need, to express my feelings to the people I lived with and to the outsiders as well. But when I was admitted to a certain school for the Deaf, I saw a ray of hope. But here too, teachers forced me to say things orally! They would hit my fingers when I tried to express myself in my own sign language. I was afraid and frustrated. After a lot of so-called efforts by my teachers, my family was finally happy when I called mom and dad as " Aama and Buba,"

Rupmani recalling her childhood was leaving me in constant goosebumps. No words were enough to explain what I was going through while reading her plight, because her next school, she says was no good either.

Rupmani recalls, "Even in this new-age all-girls school, I was the only deaf student. Teachers tried hard to teach me writing, without their knowledge of sign language. It was a very weird situation. I would try to lip read them and fought with my own fears and growing frustration."

Not many know that her marriage to a deaf partner she chose for her also ended on a sad note of insecurities. But when I ask her, she types back a smiley and takes it in her stride.

rupami receiving prize

She writes, "Marriage for me is always a mutual understanding. I chose a partner who was deaf as well, but things didn't go well. Not because we both were deaf, but because perhaps before getting to marriage, both partners need to spend more time with each other. Mutual understanding is the most important factor. And the rest can be taken care of by the technology," and I leave that personal chapter of her life closed.

Rupmani, next brings to my attention some startling statistics,

"The biggest challenge that the deaf people  – not “deaf and dumb”, just deaf – face in India is communication. Statistics show that there are 18 million deaf people in India and only 250 interpreters. This means that there is only 1 interpreter for 72,000 people."

So how did Rupmani reach where today she stands tall, high and proud?

"I joined National Association for the Deaf. Not many know that it has an office in every state. And a free-of-cost programme is run there to teach and brush up Indian sign language skills. I also got skilled in basic computer learning from NDS ( Noida Deaf Society) and at Deaf Way Foundation in Delhi," Rupmani informs me. After completing the desired education she didn't leave NAD, rather she became the Executive Member of NAD as well as NCRPD  (National Committee Rights Persons with Disabilities) with a resolve to make the world a better place for the disabled.

"In India, deaf people are not even aware of their rights, let alone knowing the sign language. And not even government institutions like the Police Station have interpreters to register a case if need be. Just imagine Mahima! Thus, a lot needs to be done," writes Rupmani.

With her undeterred determination, she has become the first deaf woman from India, selected to move to Ukraine as an International United Nations Volunteer (UNV) for one whole year March 2017- March 2018.

"My task was to advocate for better inclusion of persons with disabilities through engagement with Ukrainian civil society as well as my UN Colleagues. A lot of women shared their experiences of facing multiple instances of discrimination as a woman with disabilities in the Forum of the Rights of Women with Disabilities in Ukraine. So I know I am not alone. And I have to ensure that none is alone!" asserts Rupmani.

But then, while active internationally, she hasn't left her work in India.

rupmani at un summit

"Right now I am working with Inkludo to develop a SignAble app which is used as VRS (Video Relay Service) between deaf and interpreters. This App is aimed at the deaf to take help from interpreter via video call while they go to bank, hospital, interview any public communication. Sometimes, on weekends, I visit different cities and places to give a workshop or class to deaf people to make them empowered."

She adds with pride, "Hopefully soon Indian Sign Language will become official language for the deaf community. Mahima, each country uses a different sign language. However main expressions and some signs are common across the world. If you wish to become a professional interpreter, then you can join a professional sign language training centre in India located in Delhi, Hyderabad, Coimbatore, as well as Mumbai."

And as we chat in text, I tell her it is great to have her at SHEROES. She reverts with a big smiley and an ear-to-ear smile, "I had joined SHEROES first because I was interested to see the work they do. I found that SHEROES is a very much inclusive space. I was impressed. I felt comfortable here to be with women who are so supportive. I love to read SHEROES articles," and I tell her that I equally love to pen them! And we both exchange a lot of smileys at that :) because today Rupamni is one of the biggest motivators at the SHEROES' Moms of Kids with Disabilities Community.

And you will be happy to know that her SHEROES profile is rather full of images of RUPMANI - The Fashionista! She types back a laughing smiley and writes, "Yes! I love to go all fashionable. My favourite colours are Blue and black. I keep a watch on Instagram pages of Bollywood stars to get an idea of the latest fashion. But yes, a smile is the best make up. I put on a smile, wear what I want and there I go! Confident, fashionable and beautiful! I don't feel I am in any way different from a hearing person."  

rupmani in blue saree

So what are your future goals Rupmani?

" Mahima, my aim is to help the Indian Society to overcome the stigma and create equal and inclusive communities. I may need a few more years to do something useful for people with disabilities and Deaf people in India. It is my dream to be a journalist of the UN agencies and India. I would love to report for deaf people and express their needs. I wish to become their voice," she asserts.

And then leaves us with this very inspiring message:

"It is important to understand that it is possible to achieve your dream, no matter how big the dream is. And disability cannot stop you. I am here adding a piece of advice for parents with kids with a disability - just empower your children with the right kind of education for the disabled. And help them believe in themselves. There is no need for sympathy. They can achieve anything. Just remove the 'im' from impossible."

We are celebrating women like Rupmani who are Taking Charge to the T. International Women’s Day is around the corner and SHEROES is asking women to own their moment with #ApnaTime. Rupmani did it too, by beautifully by embracing her physical disability and marching ahead in life with it.

rupmani apna time

I am sure our ongoing #MeetTheSheroes Series has left you much motivated. So do share it among your buddies and don't forget to leave love in the comments section for her. Here is where you can follow her at SHEROES.

Hindi Version Of This Article -

पढ़ें इस लेख को हिंदी में - मैं सुन तो नहीं सकती, पर मुझे रोक पाना नामुमकिन है!

Mahima Sharma
An award-winning Independent Journalist & Content Curator based in New Delhi. She is Ex-News Editor, CNN-News18 and ANI (a collaboration with Reuters) who comes with an experience of 14 years in Print, TV and Digital Journalism. She is the only Indian who finds a mention in the Writers' Club of Country Squire Magazine, United Kingdom. Sufi at heart, she also has some 30 poems to her credit at various reputed international podiums.

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