The personal academic essay

This must be the most personal academic essay I ever submitted. It was for my Diploma in Special Education course at NIE, for an introductory end-of-year-one module. I think I got a B for it.

(Take note some info is outdated: My hearing loss is now in the severe-profound range. And I have chosen not to be bound by labels or dogma. Like, what is my identity vis-a-vis my hearing/non-hearing status? Hey I’m flexible, man. Easy, baby!)

October 2004

<< Reflections Paper >>

A reflective essay on what I have learnt and experienced since the beginning of the course is a very tough paper to write, because by its very nature, it is a deeply personal issue. There is the daunting challenge as well as delicate balancing act of writing from the heart — with all the inevitable ugly baggage which accompanies it — versus being politically correct and bringing out the clichés of ‘making a difference’ and ‘helping the less fortunate’.

I believe some background is in order here. My prior experiences, thoughts and feelings about special education and disability are inevitably coloured and ‘contaminated’ by the fact that I was, and am, a person with disability.

My deafness was something I denied during my growing up years, and it only became part of my identity relatively late in life, when I was in my early twenties. For almost my entire childhood up till the end of my teen years, I was adamant I only had to try harder, or to be more focused, for it to be possible for me to be able to catch/understand others’ speech. Such a misconception arose because I was not fully informed of the implications and complications of having a hearing loss; nor were my parents. (Why this is so is a separate issue, and rather than sidetracking here, all I would like to say is that I very much hope the system for handling cases and consulting families with newly diagnosed children with disability is much improved now compared to what I experienced then.)

However, after I was diagnosed with hearing loss at the age of eight, the doctor in charge of my case deemed me ‘not disabled enough’ — if I may phrase it thus — to be transferred to a special school or, more specifically, a school for deaf children. With my moderate hearing loss (which has worsened over the years, and is currently rated moderate-severe), clear speech and fair academic performance, I was considered a passable candidate for mainstream education, albeit with conditions. I had to show my annual academic grades to the doctor during the yearly checkup-cum-consultation sessions, as proof I could cope in a mainstream setting. The only special treatment I got was getting to sit in the front row in classrooms, courtesy of the doctor’s letter requesting this, which also contained a terse sentence stating I was “hearing impaired”. I was fitted with hearing aids too. This, and my own difficulty in communication, relationships with peers and in social situations due to my hearing loss, was the rather limited extent of the knowledge and feelings I personally had about ‘disability’ as a concept.

As I was mainstreamed throughout my entire schooling years, I did not have any experience of being in special education schools, or interaction with people with disabilities. I could not really relate to the notion of ‘disability’, despite it being relevant to me, as I regard myself as ‘normal’ and able-bodied as anyone else. This, again, was manifested in my steadfast belief that I could not hear well because I was not making the effort to, and looking back now, it seems absolutely absurd.

As such, for most of my life, I had only a vague impression of what being disabled means, and of people with disabilities. Simply, I did not think much about this; it was not on my personal radar. I was occupied and engaged in other activities and issues which had a higher priority — studies, football, books, friends and so on. I did see the occasional wheelchair user and individual with Down’s syndrome or Intellectual Disability, but these were brief and fleeting. My only other source of knowledge was from the media — television and films, which, by and large, tend to paint a stereotyped and not-too-flattering picture of people with disabilities. Even newspapers were not helpful in this regard, an example being the constant and stubborn use of ‘deaf and dumb’ to describe the deaf for many years, despite pleas not to do so from more enlightened readers.

I remember being repulsed by people with obvious physical deformities when I was a child. I was also a little wary and frightened of those with mental disabilities which showed in their behaviour, as I harboured the irrational fear that they could turn aggressive or ‘go crazy’ any moment. I also felt pity for those who had disabilities which I deemed more benign, such as the blind and wheelchair users.

Later, I was to learn, through general reading and my introductory sociology module in university that such feelings and thoughts can be explained by the fact that people have a tribal mentality and are inherently suspicious of others ‘different’ from them; the differences can be many and varied — cultural, racial, religious, linguistic and so on. I did not feel mollified that what I felt previously was a ‘natural’ and common reaction and rationalised it thus, but it at least provided a new basis from which I could approach disability.

With hindsight and enlightenment, I began to see disability from another angle. This was also the time I started to come to terms with my deafness, to the extent that I do not mind being called ‘Deaf’, as in the cultural sense — with its connotations of Deaf identity, Deaf pride and Deaf Community and Culture. (It is said that Deaf culture exists, as deafness is the only disability from which a unique language has evolved, and the role of language in the formation and growth of a cultural bond is a critical one.)

The deaf (or Deaf) individuals I met and interact along the way during my time as a volunteer with the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf) made me take a step further away from my previous mindset of ignorance and apathy. I took up sign language with a vengeance, and a whole new world of understanding emerged. I finally escaped, to a certain degree, from the suffocating goldfish-bowl prison I had been living in for almost two-thirds of my life, one in which I could see people moving their lips, but what they say being mostly illegible to me. Where previously I could never understand speeches, lectures, conversations, I could now do so with ease with the aid of interpreters. I had taken for granted the sense of being cut off from the world at large for so long that it came as an extremely exhilarating revelation this need not be so, that I had other options. I was also pleasantly surprised to experience and see for myself that these so-called disabled (deaf) people were not as alien as I thought, that I could relate to them as ‘normal’ people.

So, how did it lead to my becoming a special education teacher? Here, I must confess that a career in the special education field was not in my thoughts during my schooling years. I was not altruistic enough, and I am not being self-deprecatory when I say so, to consider that. Upon graduation, I had been volunteering with SADeaf for two years, and when an opportunity to be a relief teacher came up in the midst of my increasingly desperate job hunt, I took it.

In some ways, I told myself, it seemed to tie in with what I had wanted to do, as I originally volunteered with the Association to tutor deaf students (though I was sidetracked into helping in other areas), and I thought I can empathise with them as I was then a hearing-impaired student myself not so long ago. I rather enjoyed my relief teaching stint, even though I had my bad moments and the sense that I was left to ‘sink or swim’. So, when there were vacancies for permanent posts, I applied for it. I thought I could try it out for, say, three years or so.

“Disability is a matter of perception. If you can do just one thing well, you’re needed by someone.” — Martina Navratilova

What I gained most from the course, and specifically from this module, was a more rigorous and academic presentation of what ‘disability’ is about, and its various meanings in different contexts — in medical terms, in the ecological sense, in its socially constructed meaning and a clearer understanding of the various types of disabilities. For example, I was very surprised when I learnt that the involuntary twitching of those with Cerebral Palsy is due to damage in the brain sector regulating the body’s motor control and movement, and not because of something inherently wrong with the limbs, which I had mistakenly believed all along. Likewise, I now have much better knowledge of what exactly disabilities such as autism, mental retardation, learning disability mean.

Another striking example, to me, is the ecological factor in determining disability. Wheelchair-friendly streets and buses and other forms of public transport in Australia means a group of wheelchair-using school kids can actually go on outings conveniently, easily and cheaply. Are they disabled then, in this context of equal accessibility to public places as their non-disabled peers? However, we cannot say the same for a class of wheelchair-using students in Singapore. Here, they are effectively disabled due to the relative inaccessibility of public streets and transport (in particular, buses) and lack of wheelchair–friendly facilities.

The visits to various homes and schools were also eye-opening, in that they exposed me to the type of work the staff do, the facilities and care given to the clients, and a rough but first-hand idea of the state of SPED and the welfare system in Singapore. I visited two welfare homes and one special school during these trips. For me, coming from a special school — the Singapore School for the Deaf — which follows the academic curriculum for the majority of its students and as a form teacher of such a class, it was indeed a new experience seeing how special needs students in other special schools are taught.

Being a special education teacher for almost two years and the exposure to other special schools and students have also made me more aware and more acutely conscious of the issues and problems affecting the SPED community. Now I follow developments, news and policies to do with SPED and special needs students keenly, and am more inclined to speak up on these issues. I take umbrage with the view that ‘disabled’ inevitably means charity, welfare and dependency. I am offended when others use the Social Darwinism ‘survival of the fittest’ reasoning to justify denying people with disabilities equal opportunities in education, in employment and in social status.

I also feel a sense of bond, however vague it is currently, with the other trainees in this course, even though we are in different schools and teaching students with different disabilities. I get the feeling we are a minority, a group of like-minded individuals with similar goals for the SPED community at large. Now, whenever I express my views and seek to create more public awareness on SPED and disability, I tend to express it in terms of the entire spectrum of disabilities and not focus on my ‘own’ field of deafness and deaf education alone. Compulsory education for special needs children and having SPED schools under the charge of the Ministry of Education are causes which I particularly and passionately advocate.

I now see my work as not being confined to teaching alone, or restricted to the school I am in. As SPED teachers, I feel we have the responsibility and duty to inform and educate the public at large about the topic of disability, whenever possible. Other than their families, we know the needs of these students best. If not us, who?

In the end, I feel my disability has an influential role in how I perceive SPED and people with disabilities. My mainstream academic background may not apply exactly or be as workable to all special needs students, but integration and, more, inclusion are policies I strongly believe in. It is definitely not an easy task, and in fact will be more of a long-haul journey towards that seemingly elusive goal of inclusion in education for all special needs students. However, what I have learnt, experienced and seen so far in this course inspires me to be a part of the process and to work towards its eventual fulfillment.


One thought on “The personal academic essay

  1. Admire your willingness to share such a personal issue. Don’t think I’d be able to bear feeling vulnerable to have this depth of self-disclosure.

    Always proud to be a part of the special education fraternity, though now I work in a mainstream school setting. Like you observed, special ed teachers are bonded by common goals for our students with special needs and the future of special education in Singapore.

    ‘As SPED teachers, I feel we have the responsibility and duty to inform and educate the public at large about the topic of disability, whenever possible. Other than their families, we know the needs of these students best. If not us, who?’ Absolutely!

    Compulsory education for children with special needs will take effect next year. This has been a long time coming. Let’s continue to push for all special education schools to come under the purview of MOE. Hope to live long enough to see this happen within my life time.:)

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