What does it mean to be deaf in a hearing-centric society?
In hospital, Rosalind Foo, a deaf lady in her 40s, was mortified when confronting a senior nurse exploding into anger.
She gestured and spoke to explain that she was deaf while soaking in stares of other hospital visitors who, being able to hear the nurse’s call of queue numbers, were spared from the scolding.
“One guy asked me if I am too stupid to hear or what,” she said.
“You sound like a dog; so loud…”
Tan Jian Hao, a final-year student at Singapore Management University who is deaf, said, “People usually assume I am hearing and speak normally to me, and when I asked them to repeat, they said ‘nothing important’.”
Tan said that many assume hearing aids can function as well as ears, but instead the device sometimes makes recognizing speeches even more difficult as it also amplifies noise.
“At first, when I got lost, I interrupt people. But after a few hours, I am tired. They are tired.” He said he rarely felt included in a group with hearing people, and felt that the deaf are obliged to adapt to the hearing world.
Lily Goh, a deaf advocate for inclusive society, said that she is often left behind in family gatherings. “I got used to this. I can’t be bothered to know what’s going on.”
While doing research about how applied theatre brings change among deaf youths, she also noticed that there are many deaf youths being bullied in schools and receiving remarks such as “you sound like a dog; so loud…”
Lisa Loh, another deaf lady in her early 30s, said that her family left no stones unturned in finding a cure for her deafness. “I went through many things — acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine massage, went to temple to pray many times.
“They think that I have no career, I cannot marry, and they have to take care of me forever.”
Creating meanings with visuals
More than 90% of babies born with hearing loss have hearing parents, according to SingHealth, Singapore’s largest network of healthcare institutions.
“It is very difficult for deaf children in Singapore because we don’t have a well-established network of professionals to give necessary social support that parents of deaf children need,” said Wang Li-Sa, a hearing educator who has been supporting the deaf community. “Very very unfortunately, 9 out of 10 of these children grew up in isolation and will not discover their community until they are young adults.”
Their parents’ primary concern often boils down to “how to make the kids hear” and “how do I share my histories, my own stories and values to my kids”, according to Wang.
Developing connections with their children who are unable to access their language is challenging. “‘I’ve got a stranger living in my home.’ That’s basically how hearing parents feel about deaf children at home,” Wang explained.
Without spoken words to rely on, deaf people often adopt visual cues in communication. Loh said this came from “desire to express out”. “If you want to speak to someone through the glass panel that blocks the sounds out, it will be your instinct to gesture something instead of speaking,” she said.
Unlike Loh who went to a sign language school, Goh went to a mainstream secondary school and often relied on lip-reading.
But gradually she realized that she was more comfortable with expressing herself in sign language instead of voices. “I sometimes stutter when my mind is fixed on pronouncing correctly. It is tiring.”
When deaf children are not socialized into hearing customs, they eventually find other deaf people who are like them, who communicate in a language that is more accessible. Gradually, “they develop cultural meaning that is not associated with sound,” said Wang.
This is how the idea of “Deaf” with a capitalized “D” emerged. People who embrace the cultural norms, beliefs and values of the Deaf community are proud to call themselves “Deaf”, rather than “deaf” with an uncapitalized “d” which refers to people with varied levels of hearing loss.
Embracing Deaf identity (or not)
“I was a late bloomer. I’m sure many of us are late bloomers,” said Loh, who struggled with her identity until her early 20s. She said that limited exposure to Deaf culture and opportunities for the deaf in Singapore was to blame.
It changed after she was enrolled in a leadership training programme at a Japanese university. “There is a Deaf theater, everyone in Deaf community can enjoy full access. But here, we have to find one accessible program with an interpreter.”
The support is, however, much more limited in Singapore, she said. Students at the Institute of Technical Education or polytechnics can tap on the Special Education Fund to pay for assistive technology or interpreting services for a maximum of $25,000 for three years. This means that students can only afford one interpreter per week, which is in stark contrast with Loh’s learning experience in Japan, where interpretation services were provided for all classes.
Being exposed to the strong Deaf culture helped Loh embrace her Deafness. “I am most proud of the Deafness that can’t be separated from me,” Loh said.
There are transnational Deaf communities that help people like Goh to develop their Deaf identity. When she was chosen to represent Singapore in the World Federation of the Deaf Youth Camp, she decided to declare herself Deaf, a deaf person who identifies with Deaf culture, after seeing how other Deaf people advocated and led at the camp.
On the other hand, Foo, who grew up in a mainstream school, was only exposed to Deaf culture after interacting with other Deafs from secondary school.
In spite of knowing Deaf culture, she said, “I identify more with the hearing because I learnt a lot from hearing ways. For example, they like to talk about general affairs in the world. They discuss very good information that I can benefit more from.”
Tan’s journey to becoming Deaf also goes a long way back. Tan tried to persuade his parents to allow him to mingle with the deaf after graduating from secondary school. “I talked sense to my parents [that] if I am with the hearing, I cannot hear; but if I am with the Deaf, if I cannot sign, then I do not belong anywhere.”
Wang, who has spent almost 30 years interacting with the Deaf community, identifies this sense of isolation as a by-product of language use between people. “[When the deaf] orientate their world visually and their language is also different, they will understand human interactions differently.”
However, it is still possible for hearing people to engage with the Deaf culturally. Over her 30 years of interaction with the Deaf, Wang has fully integrated into the Deaf community, and is now able to sign fluently. “I consider myself culturally Deaf, I have taken on the role of being the cultural broker between the hearing and deaf worlds.”
For Wang, learning sign language helps to bridge the gap between the hearing and the Deaf, but individual efforts are not enough. At the state level, we also need to “invest research in language, invest training in language.”
As Wang put it: “Language is where it begins.”