What It Should Have Been: The Mea Culpa Edition

by Alvan Yap

The last two posts drew replies from a few friends who fessed up shamefacedly to having using words which are insensitive or inappropriate. Sometimes, we don’t know better. But what counts is, we live and learn.

Ok, let’s look at the following paragraph in a letter I wrote to our national daily broadsheet which was published and seen, presumably, by a readership of hundreds of thousands.

Talk about being mortified.

Original:
I hope to see the day when the wheelchair-bound are a common sight on our streets and buses, when our blind graduates find jobs worthy of their hard-earned degrees, when television news programmes have subtitles for the deaf and people no longer stare at a Down’s syndrome child in public.

Amended:
I hope to see the day when wheelchair users are a common sight on our streets and buses, when our graduates with visual impairment find jobs worthy of their hard-earned degrees, when television news programmes have subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, and people no longer stare at a child with Down syndrome in public.

The original letter is reproduced below.

***

The Straits Times Forum, 19 January 2004

Don’t Make The Deaf Feel Cut-off

I refer to Mr Malcolm Lim Tse Ming’s letter, ‘Hearing impaired need more help in school’ (ST, Jan 5), and Associate Professor Low Wong Kein’s letter, ‘Many issues need addressing in helping the hearing impaired’ (ST, Jan 10).

I wish to applaud them for bringing these issues to light. In the same spirit, I would like to raise public awareness and appeal for public understanding of the problems of the deaf by recounting my own experiences.

I was a hearing-impaired child who studied at mainstream schools and am now a special education teacher with the Singapore School for the Deaf.

Deafness is one of the most misunderstood, isolating disabilities and the seriousness of its impact – social, psychological, educational – is often underrated. As Helen Keller poignantly put it: ‘Blindness cuts you off from things; deafness cuts you off from people.’

Hearing loss is irreversible and incurable, and technological devices such as hearing aids and cochlear implants are partial solutions at best; a hearing-impaired person will never be able to hear as well as one with normal hearing.

My hearing loss was diagnosed when I was in Primary 2 and I was later fitted with hearing aids.

It would be no exaggeration to say that those years as a deaf student in mainstream schools were, for the most part, the most miserable of my life.

I could not understand lessons as I could not make out what the teachers were saying; group activities and discussions were impossible to follow for the same reason.

Mockery of my disability by my peers, and even a few teachers, was part of daily life. Teachers had no idea how to handle a hearing-impaired student like me or already had too much on their plates to pay me special attention.

The sense of being abnormal and of exclusion was overwhelming.

Being deaf is also physically draining due to the intense level of concentration needed to even have the remotest chance of following others’ speech when using hearing aids.

Of course, there were kind-hearted classmates, friends and teachers who made the time and effort to help me, but they were the exception.

So I can easily empathise with those in similar situations; it is too easy for them to simply give up on themselves and their studies because of the pressures they face so early in life.

As I grew older, I was fortunate enough to learn, gradually, to cope with my condition and take things in stride.

I also got to know other hearing-impaired individuals and found that what I went through was not unique, that their school and social experiences largely mirrored mine.

My account is not meant to evoke sympathy or pity. Nor is it to ask for charity or special privileges for the deaf.

Rather, it is to give the hearing majority an idea of the very real difficulties that deaf students face in school, as well as to ask for that bit of patience, understanding and decency when interacting with those with deafness and other disabilities.

My students still have a long way to go and I often find myself worrying and wondering about their future.

Will they find a more receptive and understanding world waiting for them after they leave their sheltered environment in the school?

Or will they encounter ignorant, indifferent and intolerant masses outside?

Yes, more can be done on the part of the ministries, the hospitals and voluntary welfare organisations.

But each of us – the man in the street – can make a difference too. How we treat the most vulnerable among us says much about us as a society and as individuals.

I hope to see the day when the wheelchair-bound are a common sight on our streets and buses, when our blind graduates find jobs worthy of their hard-earned degrees, when television news programmes have subtitles for the deaf and people no longer stare at a Down’s syndrome child in public.

That, more than soaring gross domestic product figures, will show that we have finally arrived as a society.

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