Report responsibly on persons with disabilities

The DPA wrote a letter to the Straits Times to highlight a few aspects of the Jem foodcourt incident that we found troubling. However the letter was not published by the editor. Thus we decided to share our letter on the blog. It was edited on 15 June 2016 to reflect the latest discussion on this issue. 

The Disabled People’s Association (DPA) is saddened by the incident at Jem foodcourt where a woman berated a cleaner, Mr Png Lye Heng, who is deaf (“Caught on video: Woman rants against ‘deaf and mute’ cleaner at Jem foodcourt”; June 4, 2016).

The treatment Mr Png received was discriminatory and is telling of the mindset change needed in our society. The DPA also believes that the manager involved could have been more supportive of his staff with disabilities, rather than just trying to placate Ms Alice Fong.

We are also equally concerned by the terminology used by journalists reporting on the incident.

The terms “deaf and mute” are unacceptable and offensive, and only perpetuate misconceptions that all persons who are deaf are unable to communicate just because they are either unable or do not communicate through speech. Some can speak well and clearly, while others can communicate using sign language, and as such is not “mute”.

Based on the feedback received from the Deaf community, the most commonly accepted terms are “deaf” (total inability to hear) and “hard of hearing” (partial loss of hearing). Moreover, a person is not defined by his or her disability. Thus they should always be referred to as a person first, and by their disability second. We encourage reporters and members of the public to read DPA’s Glossary of Disability Terminology.

The DPA is also concerned by the way in which the reporters interviewed Mr Png for the article (“Deaf and mute foodcourt cleaner berated by woman intends to quit his job this month”; 6 June, 2016). To communicate with the cleaner, the reporters gave him questions written in Chinese on a piece of paper to which he gestured “yes” or “no”. The Deaf community should be given the choice of being interviewed in their chosen method of communication. Some persons who are deaf or hard of hearing may prefer to communicate via email or through a sign language interpreter, while others may prefer written communications.

In certain workplace situations such as customer service where communication is essential, employers could consider giving persons who are deaf or hard of hearing the choice of wearing a badge indicating their disability. This should be a voluntary measure in the workplace. Customers and colleagues could then adapt the way they communicate with the employee. ThaiExpress and Starbucks have adopted this approach and it seems to be working well.

The media plays an important role in influencing public opinion and attitudes; the choice of words can determine perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. Thus we urge reporters to use the appropriate terminology on disability and adjust their mindsets to look at communication in different ways and not just at the norm. We also call on the Government to implement a comprehensive anti-discriminatory law to protect the rights of persons with disabilities in the workplace.

Marissa Lee Medjeral-Mills (Dr)
Executive Director
Disabled People’s Association


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