Opening the Doors of Perception

A Young Deaf Woman Finds her Calling through Technology, Community and Education

When the Centre for Disability in Development (CDD) offered Sarna Shah an internship in 2018, she almost didn’t take the job. “I needed it,” she recalled as we spoke over Microsoft Teams in early 2022. “I really needed something. But I was tired of internships! I’d done two unpaid internships already, and I felt like I was getting nowhere.”

Sarna Shah

Sarna graduated from the University of Dhaka in 2017 with an MBA in human resource management, but degree or no degree, she was a young, Deaf woman in Bangladesh, and things were looking grim. “The situation’s not good in my country,” she explained. “Not for anyone. There aren’t enough jobs. There are so many young people graduating with advanced degrees, and then they can’t find employment. That’s true even for the non-disabled. And most Bangladeshi employers aren’t very friendly to persons with disabilities.”

Sarna lost her hearing at the age of seven to a bout of meningitis, an experience that she described as initially “traumatizing.” “I shut down,” she recalled. “I didn’t speak for a year.” When she had no choice but to communicate, she would use a pen and paper, but engaging with strangers always triggered anxiety. “When you have a disability in Bangladesh, some people might be scared of you or your family,” she said. “They might think someone in your family’s a bad person: they must’ve done some bad thing, and God gave you a disability to punish them.”

Despite societal pressures, Sarna’s family showed her nothing but support and love. “They never stopped speaking to me,” she said. “For this, I’m so grateful! I can speak now, by some miracle.” Both of her parents worked full-time as bankers. “It’s really inspiring to have a working mother as a role model,” she reflected, “but difficult, too, because she couldn’t always be there when I needed her. But I think this taught me independence from a young age.”

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After a year, Sarna realized she was learning to lip-read. “It’s not simple, though, like some people think. It’s actually really, really hard!” Tentatively at first, and gradually with more confidence, she began to speak again. She also started studying Bangladeshi Sign Language, though without exposure to a signing community, she wouldn’t achieve fluency until years later, after she was working for the CDD.

Upon resuming school, she faced bullying and discrimination, sometimes even from her teachers. “Once, in a Bangla language class, the teacher was covering idioms, and he came to my desk and stood over me, saying, ‘Do you know what ‘deaf ear’ means? What is ‘deaf ear’?’ Of course, I knew the idiom. I also knew why he was asking me. These incidents made me feel terribly small.” Other teachers were kinder, but even those who did want to support her lacked training and resources. Years later, these experiences would motivate Sarna to work alongside educators, sharing resources and techniques to help them better support deaf children.

At the University of Dhaka, things took a more positive turn. “I discovered books,” she said, “and I realized that everything’s in them! Whole new worlds opened up. It was liberating.” Academic success bolstered Sarna’s confidence, as did her increasing social integration. With time, she started feeling “normal,” no longer singled out because of her disability. But, upon graduation, everything changed again.

“All my college friends were struggling,” she remembered, “unable to enter the workforce, and none of them identified as disabled. For me, it was even harder.” She sent applications and got no responses. “Or maybe they tried to call me on the phone, but anyone who knows me knows to text me. If someone’s calling, I just assume it’s a wrong number.” She struggled with depression and isolation. “By the time the CDD reached out to me, I was feeling hopeless. I almost ignored them. But then I thought, ‘Oh, well, why not? I might as well apply.’”

Sarna Shah

The CDD is a Bangladeshi not-for-profit organization founded in 1996 “to develop a more inclusive society for persons with disabilities.” They partner with over 350 organizations, both nationally and internationally, to promote inclusion of persons with disabilities and provide PWDs with community support and access to assistive technology and education.

“I started learning all about the disability rights movement,” Sarna said, lighting up as she recalled these revelations. “I hadn’t even known there was such a thing, and then all of a sudden, there I was in the midst of this huge, diverse community spread all around the world!” She started working on projects with people in other countries, participating in live events, even attending conferences and trainings abroad. “I learned about captioning technology, and suddenly, I could attend meetings and know what was going on! I learned about the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and I thought, ‘This is amazing! Absolutely amazing!’”

Sarna’s internship began in 2018. In January of 2019, the CDD retained her as a technical officer focusing on inclusive education outcomes for deaf children in Bangladesh. In 2021, she started working with a team conducting accessibility audits while also serving as assistant coordinator for sustainable education support for deaf children.

“Deaf kids face a lot of developmental difficulties when surrounded by hearing people,” she explained. “We don’t want to keep deaf children segregated because sooner or later, they’ll have to interact with the hearing world. But throwing them in with no support is even worse. They might struggle to socialize with their peers and end up feeling isolated. If they’re not exposed to language, it can disrupt their intellectual development. I focus on getting children with deafness and hearing loss successfully integrated into classrooms and communities, providing them with tools and strategies for navigating the hearing world, and educating their parents, teachers and peers about how best to support them.”

The CDD distributes Deaf-friendly teaching and learning materials and trains children and teachers to use them. They adapt textbook lessons to make them accessible and provide Bangladeshi Sign Language training to children, parents, teachers, peers, community members and government officials to improve communication between the Deaf and hearing worlds. In coordination with local partners, they organize campaigns to educate communities about deafness and combat social stigma, as well as inclusive cultural events and sports and drawing competitions. By sponsoring advocate clubs, they help cultivate empowering spaces where deaf youth and parents of deaf children can meet and mingle, discuss their shared experiences and find solutions to their common problems. Finally, they have Deaf staff members stationed in three districts, serving not just as administrators, but also as role models for local deaf children, parents, teachers and communities.

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Before the pandemic, the CDD operated three early childhood development centers for deaf children, each in a different district, but these are now indefinitely closed. With schools shut down, the CDD has shifted more attention and resources to supporting the parents of deaf children at home, especially in rural areas, as they struggle to educate their children.

For Sarna, visiting rural communities comes with its own distinct challenges. “There’s a lot of stigma. And for me, as a Deaf woman, misunderstandings are bound to happen.” Her disability can be invisible under certain circumstances, so if she’s not speaking or responding when spoken to, people think she’s just being polite or submissive. “This is socially acceptable,” she noted, “but it’s not what I want to project.” Alternately, strangers sometimes think she’s being rude when they address her and she doesn’t respond.

In Bangladesh, there’s no reliable way for Deaf people to reach the police, compounding the risk of traveling alone. “There’s one emergency number for everyone,” Sarna said, “but if you’re Deaf, you can’t hear them if they’re asking where you are, for instance, or instructing you to do something. This is a really big problem, especially for women.”

Finally, there’s the work schedule. “I stay up very late sometimes,” she said. “I work with colleagues all around the world, in all different time zones. Sometimes I have meetings after one a.m. For me to stay up so late working, as a woman…it’s frowned upon.”

The pandemic has piled on even more obstacles. “Covid-19 has been terrible for the Deaf community. In the beginning, when everyone else was panicking, lots of deaf people didn’t even know what was happening. Some people don’t have stable internet connections. Some people don’t read. Of course, we can’t listen to the news unless we have someone interpreting. Most Deaf people get their news from each other. So, a lot of people were going around wondering, ‘Why are all the stores closed? What’s up with all these face masks? Is this some new fashion trend?’”

Information about the pandemic did eventually penetrate the Deaf community, but misinformation spread faster still. “Now things are just a mess. People with disabilities are especially isolated. When you’re deaf and people are wearing masks, you can’t lip-read. Transcription apps won’t even work because their voices are too muffled. And, of course, I can’t ask people to remove the mask. I don’t want to jeopardize anyone’s health. But it really leaves me in a bind!”

Sarna Deaf students of ECD centre, Jhenaidah
Sarna Deaf students of ECD centre, Jhenaidah

For Sarna, as for many others, technology has played a life-saving role, even with its limitations. “I can participate in events online, which helps me stay connected and engaged, and that’s amazing! But it’s not perfect. For instance, the internet’s not stable. Outages happen all the time.” She uses apps like Uber for ride-sharing, “but the drivers haven’t been trained to use the map to find you. They always want to call, and I end up needing help from someone.” The same applies to food delivery and online shopping. “And many apps don’t work in Bangladesh at all,” she adds, “or they don’t have captioning, or they have captioning, but only in English, which doesn’t work for people who read only Bangla.”

During our interview, Sarna, who knows both English and Bangla, used the Live Transcribe app on her phone, supplemented by text messages, because captioning on Microsoft Teams wasn’t working. Later, I discovered that the audio hadn’t been recording, either! The first draft of this profile was reconstructed from memory, and Sarna fact-checked and filled in the gaps, further demonstrating not only technology’s limitations, but also the creativity, adaptability and patience required to overcome them.

In addition to assistive technologies, Sarna finds special value in a suite of devices and softwares that most people, whether or not they identify as disabled, now consider mundane. “Google is really important because it lets me find information without having to ask strangers,” she said. “Google Maps, especially.” She uses the service to let her loved ones know where she is and whether she’s safe. “My mother was never too good with technology, but she’s getting better and better every day! Now, if she needs to know where I am, I can simply drop a pin on Google Maps and let her know.” Most smartphones now come with these features built in, but as Sarna pointed out, they’re expensive. She feels lucky to be able to afford one. Not everyone can.

Though financially independent, Sarna still lives with her family in their hometown of Tongi, Gazipur, near Dhaka. “We have a really good relationship,” she said, beaming. “We always have. This means so much to me.” Though her parents don’t sign, she’s become an excellent lip-reader and uses Bangla and English with her family, colleagues and friends. In the evenings, she and her family sit together and watch the news, and her parents repeat the newscaster’s words in case she doesn’t catch them. They’re proud of everything that she’s accomplished, but Sarna says she’s only getting started.

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“I’m really, really excited,” she said, “because even though I haven’t done much yet, I’m getting closer. I’m finally working with the people and organizations that are focused on the projects and the issues I believe in. I’m learning about ways to help people. I’m building connections. I’m discovering all these things I have in common with strangers all over the world.”

Getting interviewed for an international magazine took courage, Sarna admitted, “but it was worth it.” She never used to like to share her story until one day when she was at the ENT clinic, and her mother started talking about her to a total stranger. “I was an MBA student at the time, and the stranger had a five-year-old kid who was Deaf, and I saw how it just filled her up with hope and inspiration when she learned that I was Deaf and studying at the most reputed university in our country. It made me realize how much you can inspire people sometimes, just by sharing your story. I hope my story does that. I hope it reaches someone out there who needs it and helps them.”

Now, Sarna says, her goal is to serve as a bridge between the Deaf and hearing worlds. “In a few years, maybe I’ll be doing really big things. Helping lots of people, giving back to the community, making things better for my country and the world. It’s my dream.”

by Mekiya Walters

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