For Mumbai audiologist and speech therapist Devangi Dalal, every single patient she helps and inspires is a reverse source of inspiration for her as well.
Destiny twice directed the course of Devangi’s life. The first was when, as a student in Mumbai who aspired to be a doctor, she couldn’t get through into a medical college of her choice. Unwilling to travel to a medical college in another town, she took up the next best option at the time: a Bachelor of Science in audiology and speech therapy from Nair Hospital, Mumbai.
So rare was this profession in those years that the hospital only offered 10 such seats, out of just 65 in all of India.
After graduating in 1991, Devangi joined ENT specialist Dr Jayant Gandhi as an audiologist and speech therapist. Versed in six languages, she began working with all age groups but veered towards children. From 2000 onwards, she began travelling internationally to update herself on technological advances in audiology and speech therapies.
It was in 2004 that destiny altered the course of her life once again.
“I had travelled to Denmark for an international conference when I learnt for the first time that babies there were being screened for hearing defects,” says Devangi. “There was no such protocol in India.”
After returning to Mumbai, Devangi asked government officials and gynaecologists about this. “The government did not find it compelling enough to offer screening for free, and gynaecologists and obstetricians were concerned that if any defect was found in the baby, they would be blamed for making a mistake during the delivery,” she says.
Moved to act, Devangi got together with Dr Gandhi and launched JOSH Foundation (Juvenile Organization of Speech and Hearing) the same year. “The idea was to create awareness among people to go for neonatal screening. We wrote articles, hosted events and started supporting schools by giving specialised hearing aids to students in need,” she narrates.
With the help of CSR funding and donations from philanthropy associations, they managed to arrange digital hearing aids – a pair of which costs anywhere from Rs 60,000 upwards – for more than 1,300 children, all of whom Devangi personally fitted and trained.
Wife of an IT industrialist and a mother of two, Devangi spent a lot of her time advocating for the use of technology in helping those with hearing impairment. “I still go to a lot of institutes, give a lot of talks, address top managements of organisations to help fund hearing aids or screening tests,” says Devangi, who also published two books on the subject in Gujarati and Hindi to reach out to low-income groups.
Indian parents still don’t realise the importance of neonatal screening. “If their child hasn’t started speaking like other babies, the parents assume the child is shy or quiet, when in fact it could be a hearing problem,” says Devangi. Since zero to five years is the best age to learn a language, one loses precious time in delaying diagnosis of hearing impairment.
“Abroad, even little babies are fitted with hearing aids and cochlear implants,” she says, regretting that in India, such children end up using gestures and sign language instead of spoken language.
“We call them ‘deaf and dumb’, but they are certainly not dumb. Instead of teaching them sign language, just get them a good hearing aid. The technology is available,” says the 50-year-old, who has so far helped over 5,000 students with hearing impairment get into mainstream education systems. “Once their handicap is addressed, most of them end up as brilliant successes in their careers – from interior design to sports management,” she says.
Devangi has consistently represented India in paediatric audiology conferences worldwide. She is also the recipient of several awards, and was the only audiologist from India appointed for Coalition Global Hearing Health, which works with the World Health Organization.
“From 65 seats in the early 1990s to 4500 now, speech therapy has definitely grown as a career option in India but the numbers are still too small to address the magnitude of the problem,” says Devangi, adding that almost half of India’s trained audiologists leave the country; 20 to 30 percent join institutes to teach further; and only a few actually run private practices or NGOs like herself in service of society.
But the need is greater than ever, says Devangi, who was the first Indian to win the humanitarian award from the American Academy of Audiology in 2012 in Boston.
The pandemic year has been especially difficult for hearing impaired children for whom online learning is not as conducive, says Devangi, who trains children for six months after fitting them with customised hearing aids as per their needs.
“We must see them as national assets and not liabilities, and we must empower them to achieve their potential,” she states.
An avid blogger and author of the motivational book Spreading Positivity, Devangi finds a huge sense of fulfilment in her work. “The youngest patient I had was five months old, and the eldest was a 107-year-old lady who wanted to hear bhajans [devotional songs],” smiles Devangi. “There is a difference between hearing and the pleasure of hearing. Once the lady was fitted with hearing aids, she always wanted the radio kept next to her all the time.”
Interestingly, Devangi also has a creative side to her personality. She has acted in a Marathi TV serial and been lyricist for a song composed by well-known music director Lalit Pandit. She also donned the director’s hat for a 17-minute telefilm to create awareness on hearing impairment.
Approximately 15 percent of the world’s adult population has some degree of hearing loss. “They have greater challenges than others but they know how to find solutions and move ahead in life,” says Devangi. “I see their smiling faces every day, and every day I am so inspired.”
First published in eShe’s April 2021 issue
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