A multi-faceted woman of substance, Devangi Dalal, an audiologist and speech therapist by profession, has been instrumental in empowering differently abled children and adults. She is the first Indian audiologist to have received the Humanitarian Award from the American Academy of Audiology in 2012. Dalal has represented India in various audiology conferences in such countries as Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates and Italy, among others. Team Optimist spoke to her about her exemplary journey in the field of Audiology & Speech Therapy. An excerpt…
Team Optimist: As an audiologist and speech therapist, what’s your take on hearing impairment problems in India?
Devangi Dalal: Of the global population of hearing-impaired people, 60% are children under age 15 and only 10% of them get proper treatment. It’s estimated that, out of every 1,000 babies born in India, six have hearing disability.
In our country, there are myths and misconceptions surrounding hearing impairment. Since this condition isn’t visible, they’re not considered handicapped. There’s a common misconception that people with hearing impairment are also dumb, but this isn’t true. First of all, these children should be referred to as ‘hearing-impaired’ and not as ‘deaf’.
In India, there’s a social stigma attached to hearing disability. The moment we see deaf children, we start using fewer words. This shouldn’t be done. Even a newborn with perfectly normal functions doesn’t start speaking immediately after birth. They listen, gauge, learn and then repeat those words. That’s exactly how hearing-impaired children, too, should be treated. With the help of proper hearing aids, these children can also start talking normally over time.
Besides, such countries as the US and UK have paediatric protocols that are followed, where newborns are screened for hearing before they leave a hospital. But, in our country, we don’t yet have such norms.
Team Optimist: What do you think is the biggest hurdle in the path of empowering hearing-impaired children and adults?
Devangi Dalal: There’s not one, but several hurdles in the way of empowerment of hearing-impaired children. Some issues that act as roadblocks for hearing-impaired children in India are illiteracy, poverty, myths and misconceptions, linguistic barriers, social stigma, ignorance, lack of government and societal support, among others.
Team Optimist: Initially, when technical expertise wasn’t available, how did you deal with these differently abled children and adults?
Devangi Dalal: I started my practice in 1991 and technical advancement in this field happened in 1993. So, I’ve worked with it since the initial stages, but back then people weren’t aware. We had to provide good results for people to understand how technology could give good results. We kept telling parents that, instead of determining the level of hearing loss in a child, try to find out how much hearing is left. This simple conceptual change can make a huge difference in a child’s life.
Earlier, we had to counsel teachers of special schools and parents of such children on how technology could be of help. Technology does play an important role nowadays. Using the latest technology back then, we started working on a few children and got good results, which we shared with parents to bring about awareness. It was tough going, but we didn’t relent.
I have only one question… we’re in an age where we readily accept technological advancements in phones, computers and other devices. Then, why not with hearing aids?
Team Optimist: How did you conceive of the idea of the Josh Foundation? Did you set up any benchmark, or target?
Devangi Dalal: I visited a school in Gujarat around 2005. There were about 350 hearing-impaired children in this residential school singing our National Anthem using sign language, while children with the same problem in Mumbai, who had been treated, could sing the Anthem just as any other child with normal functions would. I was astonished at these extremes.
A few months later, I travelled to Denmark for a conference on neo-natal screening. Among 400 delegates, when I was asked how much screening was done in India, I had no answer. That was when we thought of starting the Josh Foundation. My colleague, ENT specialist Dr Jayant Gandhi, and I decided to start this movement called Josh. We approached many professionals to help us create awareness. We also involved parents of hearing-impaired children. That’s how we started the Josh Foundation to spread awareness and remove misconception about hearing-impairment among the common people.
Our target is to create awareness about hearing-disabled people at the national level.
Team Optimist: What, according to you, are the roles of home and community in the holistic development on hearing-impaired children and young adults?
Devangi Dalal: Basically, it all boils down to teamwork. Children come to professionals for, maybe, half an hour to an hour. But they spend the majority of their time with their parents. For good results, it’s essential that parents put in the maximum efforts and participation. One of the most important observations I’ve made in my professional career is that those parents of hearing-impaired children who put in equal efforts bring about the best improvements in their children.
Team Optimist: Looking forward, what jobs do you propose hearing-impaired individuals should take up?
Devangi Dalal: Earlier, there was a lack of technology for children with hearing-impairment. So, they couldn’t be part of society that’s referred to as normal and their employment options were quite limited. They worked where minimal to no social interaction was required, such as back-office jobs or as chéfs. The government has 3% jobs reserved for disabled people, of which 1% is for people with hearing impairment. However, they don’t get these opportunities since they’re not considered handicapped by society, in general.
It’s important to get good hearing aids, according to requirement, as early on as possible and the best rehabilitation that can bring them into the normal educational system and higher studies.
If these steps are followed, all kinds of employment opportunities should open up for them, depending upon their areas of expertise. Many children associated with the Josh Foundation are able to complete their Engineering, Architecture, Designing and Animation, Information Technology, Chartered Accountancy and Fashion Designing courses and even their MBAs and Ph.Ds in their respective fields.
Team Optimist: Do you have any personal target in this specific segment?
Devangi Dalal: Our aim is to spread awareness so that hearing-impaired children can be treated as children with normal functions. Due to a lack of awareness in our country, such children face a lot of problems when it comes to education and employment. I intend to educate people about the problems these children face due to indifference and the general behaviour of society towards them. These children already lead a tough life. They are shy and subdued and how people react to them makes a world of difference in their attitudes.
Under the banner of the Josh Foundation, we wish to establish a state-of-the-art institute for hearing-impaired children, covering all solutions under one roof (based on the model used in Germany at present), where we’ll train and integrate them into society as normal children. I want to establish public speaking classes for them. And, most importantly, I aim to make them self-sufficient and independent, so that they become an asset and not a liability to society.
Team Optimist: With an illustrious career spanning over 25 years, what’s your advice to young audiologists?
Devangi Dalal: When I received the Humanitarian Award from the American Academy of Audiology in 2012, it was a great feeling because I was being recognised for my work. I had started this journey with the sole intention of making the lives of hearing-impaired children better and to ensure that they could lead a normal life just as everyone else and I was awarded for my efforts.
My advice to young audiologists is, “You’re in a profession where you should maintain commercial and social balance. If you do proper technical and medical work backed by quality service, you’ll get the best benefits. You must enjoy your work and you’ll receive great satisfaction when you get a chance to give back to society all that you owe it. The four Cs — Character, Competence, Consistency and Capacity — make a good audiologist.”
Team Optimist: Can any person get certification on speech therapy? How can awareness of this be increased?
Devangi Dalal: You can’t get certification in speech therapy. You have to complete your 12th Grade in Science and then opt for a four-and-a half-year course in audiology and speech therapy.
Awareness can be increased through social media, educating people and through career counsellors.