Time and again, I’ve been asked variations of the following questions pertaining to my deafness. It could be in casual or academic settings (as the ones below are), but they’re at heart the same questions. And after the latest, why not make it public? Next time anyone asks.. here you go. (And there will be many next times.)
* When and how did you lose your hearing?
>> Was diagnosed at age 8, in primary 2, during an MOH checkup in school. Failed the hearing test. Was then sent to the children’s clinic at Outram for a more advanced test and proceeded to flunk that too.
* How did you feel when you had to wear hearing aids?
>> Memory is fuzzy now. It’s more than 30 years since I first started using hearing aids (HAs). I vaguely remember being self conscious about wearing them and also disliked the sounds heard through the HAs – distorted, loud, weird, even scary.
* Would you like to share your journey or experiences when you were learning in school in a mainstream environment? What were your challenges when you were in school in a hearing environment?
>> Looking back, the greatest frustration was that I could hear sounds and speech when I was using my hearing aids – yes, sure, definitely. I. Can. Hear.
But I couldn’t understand what was being said much of the time. Repeat – I. Cannot. Understand.
About 80-100% of the time, speech was incomprehensible. And that was so puzzling and demoralising a phenomenon – I could hear yet I couldn’t understand. (It took me too many years to understand it wasn’t my fault, and that it wasn’t because I wasn’t trying hard enough to hear.)
Why couldn’t I understand? Because of a combination of factors, I guess – quality of analogue HAs not too good, too much background noise, less than conducive environmental settings (big open classrooms, canteens, playgrounds etc), and my rapidly worsening hearing as I grew older. (I’m now at the severe to profound loss level which in practical terms means I’m as deaf as can be.)
So my problem was a simple yet devastating one: Most of the time, I couldn’t understand what teachers were saying and I couldn’t understand what anyone else was saying. This naturally affected my studies and social interaction and self esteem and all that.
* How did you learn to speak and write so well?
>> To explain that, some backstory first. I was initially diagnosed with moderate hearing loss, which I suspected meant that my hearing when I was younger – as in ages 1-6 – was much better. (Because I have progressive hearing loss. Like, some people lose their hair progressively, ie. they become more and more botak. While I become more and more deaf.)
I remember I could hear those SBC drama theme songs in the early to mid 1980s. And I suspect that’s how I picked up speech relatively well – because at the crucial early years of language acquisition via auditory and oral means, I still had enough hearing to be able to do so.
But from primary school onwards, my hearing seemed to nosedive, and I could no longer hear well enough (even with hearing aids) to pick up more language that way. But I did acquire an intense, all-consuming love of books and reading around the same time – I read everything I could and I could read beyond my supposed academic level.
My simplistic theory is: if you read widely and deeply enough from young, you will also get the knack of writing good. In a way, that was a purely random lucky break which saved me, else I would have been cut off from language in a significant aspect.
* When did you learn how to use sign language? Was it difficult learning to sign?
>> In university, when I was 21 or 22.
I guess for me, it was less difficult in certain ways because it was a natural fit for me – I was used to silence and comfortable with it (like, I take off my HAs whenever I don’t need to listen to people talking to me), and I depend a lot on visual cues and awareness to make sense of the world. (Most sounds are meaningless noise to me otherwise.)
And I made the effort to make friends in the local Deaf community, hung out with them, talked to them. And of course, my best teachers when it comes to really learning sign were my primary 3 to 6 students when I was their teacher and immersed in a fully signing school for four years.
* Do you think it is necessary / important / better that children with a hearing loss learn to sign?
>> Let me phrase it in a commonsensical way: It’s important for children with hearing loss to acquire language at the same rate as hearing children, and have the same access to language to do so, and undergo normal cognitive development. It is like saying, every child should get enough nutrients to develop normally and not end up physically stunted. No one disagrees on this right?
But here’s the kicker – not all children with hearing loss will pick up language at a normal rate with oral-based therapies (NAO or AVT, supported by HAs, CIs, etc). In fact, it won’t work out for some. This again is indisputable.
Even if – to be extremely generous and to take an extreme figure – 99.9% of deaf babies succeed in acquiring oral language at the same pace and level as hearing babies, what about the 0.01% who doesn’t and couldn’t do the same for whatever reason?
And this question should be taken seriously because it happens and when it happens, the consequences of failing to acquire language are so direly serious. A child who fails to acquire language early in life (before age 6 and particularly between ages 0-3) is at risk of being cognitively impaired his entire life.
So the issue here is not about whether sign or speech is better. It is not tribal, not about proving this way or that way is better, and it should never be about “you can learn sign or you can learn speech but not both, and you must choose one option and give up the other”. In other words, putting it that way is a false dichotomy. But too often, it has been presented that way. Instead, it is about making sure the kid gets language. And some of them can only get that access to language via sign.
* What do you think of the following views for deaf education:
Oral first, sign later
Both oral and sign together
>> I’m for whatever it takes and is necessary for children with a hearing loss. What works best? What does the research say? What does actual experience show? Use it.
* Do you think it is necessary or important for children with a hearing loss to learn to speak?
>> Ideally, yes. If a child with hearing loss is able to learn speech well and also develop language, congratulations. But to say it is ‘necessary’ – no. Because language comes first. If you don’t have clear speech or even no speech, but you have language (sign, written, etc) – congratulations.
* What advice would you give to parents and teachers when teaching children with a hearing loss how to speak? What are your advice to students with a hearing loss who are learning how to speak?
>> No idea, because I can’t remember exactly how I learnt speech. And I don’t really have a “I had speech issues and I overcame it” story to share.
* How do you balance between signing and speech? There are parents who feel that if their child with a hearing loss is taught to sign, they will not use their voice. Any advice?
>> To those who feel that way, I would pose this question to them: Is there any scientific evidence or research which shows that signing will affect the acquisition of speech? I believe not.
In fact, the opposite is true – research has shown that learning sign (which is easier and more accessible for deaf kids) helps in speech development and, more importantly, in language and cognitive development.
Again, again, again – language first. Children will naturally pick up language in the ways which are most accessible to them. And if that happens to be sign, so..? Go ahead. Language first!
Tell them all these. Let them think about it. Encourage them to do their own research; there’s no need to take anyone’s word for it. I might be mistaken, I might have some vested interest in taking this stance – who knows? Check for yourself.
* What has been your involvement in education for learners with a hearing loss?
>> Spent a total of six years, so far, as a teacher of deaf children and adults – in three schools in Singapore and one overseas.