This talk was delivered at the inaugural “Reflections on a disability-led practice” at SUSS on 11 August. A disability-led event organised by disabled people and allies, I was one of the speakers/panelists along with Dr Dawn-joy Leong, Cassandra Chiu, Lim Lee Lee and Victor Zhuang.
During the Q and A, one of the audience asked how the event “Reflections on a disability-led practice” came about. Dawn-joy Leong and Victor Zhuangrecounted its origins – which I had completely forgotten. To further refresh my memory, I had just scrolled (and scrolled and scrolled) to find the discussion post which triggered it all.
Back in April, we came across this Storyfest Festival Singapore ‘masterclass’ workshop titled ‘Storytelling & Disability 2: Helping People to Share their Own Stories”. The fee for this half-day workshop? $200 for each participant.
Ok. Now. Hold on. Storytelling? Disability? Share our own stories? We, a group of actual, living, breathing disabled persons who are professionals in our own right, thought we can do that just as well. Maybe better. Confirmed cheaper.
And so we did.
Thanks to all friends among the 53 paying participants who gave your time and effort to show up on a Saturday and forked out the $10 fee too! Instead of catching a movie, you chose to spend three hours listening to us talk, talk and talk somemore. I’m grateful.
Heartfelt appreciation to our volunteers Ho Yi Lin, Yeo Min, Candy Mak, Jacqueline Woo, Lily Goh, and access team Celine, Yong Yeo, Evelyn Chye, Tan Angie, Nix Sang, and Marissa from DPA (and my former boss!) for pulling off the whole thing for us and with us. I know I missed some, pardon me. And sorry I didn’t get the chance to actually be introduced to a few of you or even say hi – it was hectic. And of course, thank you, fellow speakers and panelists Dawn, Victor, Cassandra Chiu and Lim Lee Lee.
Let’s do it again.
Let’s hear more and different stories from more and different speakers.
SLIDE ONE: Finding our voices
Good afternoon everyone, welcome!
Thank you for showing up.
Now I don’t usually do up a written script for my talks because I like to live dangerously. But I did so this time because I’m the first speaker with disability. So I wish to set a good example, create a good first impression and generate positive vibes for the speakers after me.
Second, you paid to be here – so must give value for money lah. That’s one of our core values – we are Singapore, Singaporeans. Pardon, still in the National Day mood. Lastly, because I’m getting old and don’t trust my memory anymore.
The title of my talk is “Finding our voices”. Why this title? Finding your voice can mean advocating for yourself – in the sense of speaking up for yourself, talking about your feelings and ideas and problems.. and proposing solutions. And today, my fellow speakers and I will be doing some of that. Well, maybe not so much of that for me.
For me, finding our voices can also mean something more simple. It means to break our silence, to tell our own stories to the world at large and, sometimes, also to ourselves. Some of our stories, maybe many of our stories are not easy to share because they stir up bad memories. And we have to dig deep to find the courage to open up.
Let me tell you three of my stories.
SLIDE TWO: An unforgettable X-ray
Audio Description: The slide shows the words “An unforgettable X-ray”.
When I was 12 or 13, I went for a chest X-ray at a hospital. This involved taking off some of my clothes. In front of a female nurse. That can’t be too bad right? At that time, I was wearing my hearing aids. And I had already taken off my shirt. Then the nurse said something. But as usual, I couldn’t really catch what she was saying.
And after I said HUH? the first time, I was too embarrassed and too timid to tell the nurse I still couldn’t understand what she said. Rather than ask again, I assumed I had to take off my pants too. It seems strange but I was more malu about having to acknowledge I couldn’t hear well enough than to strip. So I started to take off my pants. And the nurse stopped me. She was upset and said very loudly and fiercely: “Do you understand English?”
Now, I cannot remember what happened after that. But I realised I have not been able to forget what happened until that. This is just one of the many many incidents growing up deaf, which bit by bit chipped away at my self esteem and caused me to feel inferior – what is wrong with me? Why can’t I hear properly? I am using very expensive hearing aids! Why can’t I understand what people are saying?
I had all these negative thoughts because being deaf is always being anxious, always being self conscious. It’s not just about not understanding teachers and lecturers; it’s also about missing out on social cues and not being able to take part in social interactions and feeling very left out, very cut off from people. But I wanted to fit in, I don’t want to seem different. And so I play along and pretend to understand what people say. And this is only something I fully realise many years later, when I look back at what happened.
And for many years, I cringe whenever I remember this story. And I wanted to forget what happened. Now, telling this story for the first time in public, in fact for the first time to anyone, I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t feel ashamed anymore.
Slowly, I have come to know that my experience is common – that there are many people who went through similar experiences. Not only deaf and hard of hearing people, but also those cast adrift in a place where they don’t know the majority language well.
Like migrant workers, like some of our elderly folks, and even those of us who find ourselves living in foreign lands. And because of this insight, I’m able to empathise better with them and with others in similar situations.
Now the second story.
SLIDE THREE: Where I belong
Start of signed portion of the speech. Interpreter to voice.
Audio Description: The slide shows the words “Where I belong”.
I was a teacher at the Singapore School for the Deaf for four years. During my time there, I taught a class from primary 3 to primary 6.
SLIDE FOUR: Class photo
Audio Description: On the screen is a picture of my seven students and I posing for class photo. Of the students, five are girls and two are boys. We are standing in front of a building with the words “Singapore School for the Deaf” on it.
At first, I thought: Sure, I have hearing loss like my students. But in other ways, we are not the same. I only ever attended mainstream schools. They are in a special school. Most of them do not have clear speech. I have clear speech (or so I thought). They are deaf. I’m not really deaf, I am hearing impaired. In fact, the only things we had in common were 1. We can speak in sign language and 2. we hate to wear our hearing aids.
But my students started to notice things which I didn’t notice. Like, I could understand the way they sign, which was usually does not follow English syntax. They saw that whenever hearing colleagues called me from the door when my back was turned, they always had to tell me cos I always failed to react. They saw I was very comfortable with not hearing, because I often didn’t wear my hearing aids.
Then one day, the recess bell rang. I’m sad to say, as a teacher, they were most excited when it’s recess or dismissal time. Not when I’m teaching. Anyway. Back to the tale. They got very excited.. and then very worked up when I didn’t react – because I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids that day.
Me: “Really? But still 9.55. Recess at 10.”
Students: “Clock slow! You didn’t hear bell?? Recess now!”
“Yes. Of course I heard. I’m hearing.”
“NOOOO!! YOU ARE DEAF!!!”
Then I knew. They see me as just like them, the same as them.
And for the first time in my life, I felt I belong.. even if it’s “only” to a group of kids.
End of signed portion of the speech.
Here’s my last story.
It’s about one of the incidents which inspired me go into disability advocacy work.
SLIDE FIVE: Why not?
Audio Description: The slide shows the words “Why not?”
In 2010, I was teaching in a school for the deaf in Dili, the capital of Timor Leste. It was a ulu country with almost zero tourists. And not that much have changed even today. So I was most surprised to run into a pair of backpackers. Lisa and Mizuho.
SLIDE SIX: Lisa and Mizuho photo
Audio Description: The photo on the slide shows two ladies – Lisa and Mizuho. Lisa is taller and has shoulder length brown hair. Mizuho has short dark hair and red rimmed glasses, as well as a tattoo on her right arm. They are smiling and standing with arms around each other, sunburnt and dusty and carrying big backpacks.
Lisa is American. Mizuho is Japanese. Both use sign language and don’t use hearing aids or any hearing devices. They are both profoundly and proudly deaf – deaf with a capital D. And they were traveling Southeast Asia and came to Timor and found the school I was teaching at. We ended up hanging around Dili for four days.
And we talked about all kinds of things, from the particular to the personal to the political. Of course we also talked about our lives as deaf people in our respective countries. That was when I felt, for the first time, deeply ashamed to call myself Singaporean in front of others. Ok. Singapore, Japan the United States are all developed countries.
But why is Singapore so backward when it came to policies for deaf and disabled people? At that time, we did not have compulsory education for disabled children, we did not have transport concessions, and we did not have any laws about disability rights.
And while I thought the Lisa and Mizuho were very.. brave and daring to backpack on their own, being deaf and female. Their attitude was: No big deal. We’re deaf and we can do anything we want to. Very matter of fact about it all. But it was a big deal to me.
It sparked something in me. I was like, wow! I want to own the same attitude and confidence and rights they have. And I came back to Singapore thinking, hey, we disabled people can do so much more, we can be so much more, and we can do so much better. We – including myself. Why not?
SLIDE SEVEN: Our stories, our rights
Audio Description: The screen shows the words “Our stories, our rights”
Over the past two years, I was involved in a theatre project and a research project. The theatre play was about disability experiences and one of my fellow speakers, Lee Lee, will talk more about it later. The research project was done with the Disabled People’s Association and Institute of Policy Studies, and it was about discrimination against disabled people in the workplace – very serious and a-bit-academic stuff.
Doing these two projects gave me the opportunity and the privilege to meet and hear from many people who have disabilities. There were a few happy stories, many sad stories, exciting stories, dramatic stories. But what struck me most was, they were all human stories. They could be stories about any one of us, whether we are disabled or not, regardless of gender or race or politics or religion.
So the stories we tell ourselves and others are important. They have value. They have meaning. They deserve to be told. It is not always easy to do that, especially if ours are traumatic experiences. If we can, it is important to tell our stories to help us find closure, as a form of catharsis. Of course, not everyone feels up to it, and that is ok.
And often, telling our stories also helps us make sense of the world, and helps the world to make sense of us. To understand us better, and to better empathise with us. And to show that the things we thought we are alone in suffering through are also the same things others have experienced, and that we are not so different after all.
How can we tell our stories? I’m a writer, so I write about it. I used to keep a blog for years before I stopped. And I started blogging again two years ago because I wanted to get my voice and my stories out there. There are many other ways to tell our stories – it can be in the form of a private journal or a public blog, through videos, through music, through artwork, through theatre and movies even. Or even talking about it, like what I am doing now.
What matters is we know we are born storytellers, and we know we have a voice. And that we are able to find our individual voice and collective voices.
So. Keep telling your story, our stories.
And now let me pass on the storytelling baton to our next speaker – Lee Lee.