Obituary: Ian Stillman

ian stillman

Ian Stillman was a British deaf man and amputee who pioneered opportunities and rights for the deaf in India. His sister, Elspeth Dugdale, pays this tribute.

Born in 1950 to hearing parents, Ian became profoundly deaf as a baby, due to a quinine dosage for malaria while the family was living in Kenya. His UK education ranged from one-to-one teaching (which gave him excellent lip-reading skills), a brief period of ‘deaf’ school, continuing at 12 into mainstream education. Following a degree in Industrial Design at Guildford, he was advised to get some ‘life experience’ before starting a career in industry.

Ian went to India as a volunteer art teacher at the CSI School for the Deaf in Chennai. During that life-changing year, he made three key decisions: firstly to return to India and set up an innovative project, Nambikkai Foundation, in 1978. Secondly, very significantly, he met and married Yesumani (Sue) Reuben who was to share this lifelong vision, and thirdly he found personal Christian faith – the foundation of his outlook on life.

ian stillman sue reueben

The main focus of Nambikkai was to give marginalised young deaf adults hope and purpose in life through training and education. It proved to be groundbreaking and a model project for the Indian sub-continent. Nambikkai grew into an active, thriving community of deaf people who lived, worked and ‘did life’ together. Ian and Sue were the subject of a BBC Tearfund documentary Nambikkai and Ian later became an adviser to the Indian government on deaf issues.

An avid motorbike fan, Ian made several overland trips to India by bike, his determination and persistence disregarding any communication challenges along the way. However in 1995, a serious road accident left him with a traumatic leg amputation. He continued to live and work in India, despite the considerable difficulties due to his limited mobility and ongoing phantom pain. Nambikkai continued to function as an agricultural and creative project, also adapting to meet the needs of the deaf in the emerging age of technology and communication in India.

In 2000 Ian was wrongly imprisoned in India after cannabis was supposedly found in a taxi he had hired. Court proceedings continued with Ian being denied an interpreter and he was also accused of ‘faking’ his deafness. The case was subsequently hailed as “one of the worst abuses of the legal process I have ever encountered” by Stephen Jakobi of Fair Trials Abroad, who supported Ian and his family throughout. After over 2 years in jail, he was released on the personal orders of the President of India following a relentless and widespread international campaign. Sue continued tirelessly with the management of Nambikkai in India, during that long, difficult period.

Ian will be remembered for many things, in particular his pioneering deaf work, his mad love of dogs, cars and motorbikes, and his sense of adventure. On 25th May 2016 Ian died peacefully at home in Norfolk. He is survived by his wife, Sue, and their two adult children, Lenny and Anita.

Following the recent sad passing of Ian Stillman, his family have arranged a Memorial Service on 15th October 2016 at Carey Baptist Church in Reading. More information will be available nearer the time. Please save the date in your diary and join his friends and colleagues to celebrate his life.