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OP-ED: A voice to the voiceless

  • Published at 12:45 am December 3rd, 2020
rohingya camp
File photo of a Rohingya camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Is it possible to develop a sign language for the deaf and mute within the Rohingya camps?

An inclusive humanitarian response is the most important part of ensuring a marginalized community’s safety and security, but what about those who are more marginalized due to being silent? 

Although the exact number of Rohingya refugees with disabilities is unknown, it is estimated that around 44% of these refugees have a disability or a serious medical condition (REACH, UNHCR Multi-Sector Needs Assessment Cox’s Bazar Rohingya Refugee Response, July 2018). The proportion of deaf and mute refugees is significant and in some of the cases, they have been treated as mental patients.

Some concerning facts about the deaf and mute among the Rohingya to think of:

  • No persons being deaf and mute were participating in cash for work, vocational, livelihood, or skills training programs, even though they face greater difficulties than persons without disabilities in accessing informal work
  • School-aged children who were deaf and mute attended school at a lower rate than average for the Rohingya refugee community. The main barriers cited were a lack of communication, lack of assistance for inclusive learning environments and practices, and negative attitudes from their peers or teachers
  • They are also reported to not participate in any community decision-making
  • None of the actors were using the Washington Group questions to identify persons with disabilities. Only two service providers reported “fully” consulting with persons with disability about accessibility

The importance of spreading awareness about Covid-19 in sign language for the deaf and mute is evident, but the question is: Who would pioneer this? Even though one of the employees from the Centre for Disability in Development (CDD) stated that they have started working on it, there remain many challenges.

There is hardly any progress, neither from the international agencies and NGOs nor from the RRRC (Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner), as all the messages are for the mainstream. 

While talking to the BBC and Translators without Borders, despite having and producing a quality program such as Soiyi Hota, there is hardly any initiative to produce a video in sign language. The necessity of incorporating the Braille language has become important as well.

While talking to Translators Without Borders, one of the representatives stated :

“We are always very happy to provide any community-facing translation to organizations working with the Rohingya community. I am not very sure if there are differences in sign language for different language speaking communities and if so, then which one should be used for wider understanding. But it definitely looks like something we may look into. In addition, as far as we can ascertain, there is no sign language for the Rohingya.”

The deaf and mute community inside the camps is still in a vulnerable condition; even the data has not been updated. With that in mind, what could be the way forward to develop a code of conduct for the newest form of a sign language?


  • Deaf and mute refugees should be in the research process, including in the study design, study implementation, data ownership, intellectual property, and authorship of any sign language development
  • Access by researchers to any traditional knowledge should be subject to the prior informed consent of the owners or the deaf and mute refugees
  • A culturally appropriate plan to share benefits should be agreed to by all relevant stakeholders, and reviewed regularly as the research evolves. Researchers from high-income settings need to be aware of the power and resource differentials in benefit-sharing discussions, with sustained efforts to bring lower-capacity parties into the dialogue
  • It is essential to compensate local research support systems, for instance translators, interpreters, or local coordinators fairly for their contribution

Potential cultural sensitivities should be explored in advance of research with local communities, research participants, and local researchers to avoid violating customary practices. Local ethics review should be sought wherever possible. Ahead of the research it should be determined whether local resources will be depleted to provide for the staff. Tailored risk management plans should be agreed to in advance of the research. Exceptions might be permissible in the context of specific local conditions. 

Lower educational standards, illiteracy, or language barriers can never be an excuse for hiding information or providing it incompletely while developing the sign language. Plain language and a non-patronizing style in the appropriate local languages should be adopted in communication with deaf and mute participants who may have difficulties comprehending the research processes and requirements. 

The crises and challenges have provided the ground for the emergence of a new pattern of sign language inside the camps for the deaf and mute, which is neither similar to Bengali nor to Burmese. This is the time where the sectors, sub-sectors, and camp stakeholders and actors can all work together.

Natasha Israt Kabir is a Development Professional, Freelance Researcher, Founder of BRIDGE Foundation, and Volunteer at ADWG (Age and Disability working Group at Rohingya Responses). She can be reached at [email protected]

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