By Phoebe Tay, Australia
I CANNOT FORGET THAT NIGHT. IT SHOOK MY PERSPECTIVE.
I was alone in the living room reviewing a set of videos for my Deaf education assignment. My eyes were glued to the television set. I proceeded to sit on the edge of the sofa in anticipation, my feet firmly planted on the carpeted floor. It was the first I heard about Abbé de l’Épée, the founding father of Deaf education in France. A further discovery of how Deaf history evolved from there leading to the establishment of Gallaudet University, a Deaf university that uses American Sign Language (ASL) in Washington D.C. Then the words “Deaf Culture” came on the screen.
This compelled me to probe further. What was it? Who am I?
I was 21 years old when I discovered Deaf Culture. Since moving to Australia, I had a heightened sense of my cultural identity as a Chinese Singaporean. I had a solid group of friends from various cultures but I had never heard of Deaf Culture.
The 2010 Social Report states that “Culture refers to the customs, practices, languages, values and world views that define social groups such as those based on nationality, ethnicity, region or common interests. Cultural identity is important for people’s sense of self and how they relate to others. A strong cultural identity can contribute to people’s overall wellbeing”. Deaf Culture refers to “the social beliefs, behaviors, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are affected by deafness and which use sign languages as the main means of communication. According to Wikipedia, when used as a cultural label, the word deaf is often written with a capital D, and referred to as “big D Deaf” in speech and sign. When used as a label for the audiological condition, it is written with a lower case d”. The very notion of “Deaf culture” and learning that it was equal to another cultural group such as Singaporean culture was mind-boggling. It compelled me to rethink the way I saw myself and Deaf people.
Never in the past 20 years of my life did I perceive deafness as a culture. To me, it was a disability that limited me in several ways. Life was a constant battle.
I was born and raised in Singapore. My parents faced the dilemma of finding an appropriate educational placement for me upon diagnosis of my profound hearing loss at the age of 4. They enrolled me in kindergarten at the Canossian School for the Hearing Impaired (CSHI), an oral school for deaf children. I was only there for 6 months. My parents transferred me to Ngee Ann Primary School, a mainstream school, when they found I did not adjust well to CSHI. There, I knew I had hearing aids and the other kids at school did not. It never mattered because my teacher and peers did not treat me differently. I enjoyed hanging on the monkey bars and playing hide and seek with my classmates during recess. My mum always made sure my form teacher knew that I was hearing impaired and that I was seated at the front of the class. I was not aware how much I missed out in class because I rarely paid attention. I was constantly distracted by something else more interesting like how my classmates new thick-framed black plastic glasses made him look like a nerd. If not, I was always sleeping with my eyes open or lost in fairyland. My teacher could not tell because it never showed in my grades. Thank God for all the extra coaching I received at home.
Growing up, I always used that term. Sometimes, I said I was ‘hard of hearing’. That was how I understood why I needed hearing aids and told other kids when they enquired about the devices that I was wearing behind my ears clearly visible because my hair was always pushed back by my headband. Without them, I could hear nothing. When I put them on, I could hear and understand speech. During a church camp in Malacca, I was playing in a corner at the conference hall when a girl about my age came up to me. She commented on my hearing aids and insisted I was deaf. I did not like the word ‘deaf’. I was adamant that the word ‘deaf’ was for those who could not speak and hear. I did not embrace that term because I could hear with my hearing aids and talk. I was indignant.
When I was 10 years old, I hung out with a clique of 6 girls in my class at recess. All of us were fanatics of Sweet Valley books. We swapped them under our desks secretly during lessons. We often sneaked a peek at a page whenever our teacher had her back turned to the class while scribing something on the blackboard. During recess, we acted out scenes in the book. We would also gather as a group and laugh and talk about a lot of things. When they laughed, I would laugh too, observing their facial expressions and mouth movements. I started to realise I was not catching on to some of the chatter and was unable to respond spontaneously. I started to feel bored but I did not understand why.
When I turned 11, my mum made the decision to transfer me to St Anthony’s Canossian Primary School (SACPS), a Catholic mainstream school where there were 2 other hearing impaired students integrated in the same class. I would receive some additional support from a teacher sent from CSHI. There, it suddenly dawned on me that I was different to the other kids at school. During breaks, sometimes I would hang out with my hearing impaired classmates. There were times I just did not want to because I did not want to identify with them. I had good speech and better grades than they. This gave me a sense of superiority. Looking back, I realise my attitude was so wrong. Frequently, I would try my best to hang out with the hearing girls and to “fit in” as if I was normal like everyone else but I knew that I was lacking something deep within. Whenever I was unwell or needed to contact mum at school, I had to ask a hearing friend to ring home on my behalf and relay the message to her. It became difficult to participate in group projects in my class which became a source of anxiety. Sometimes, I would complain of a stomach-ache and request for permission to go to the toilet. Then, I would lock myself in a cubicle and cry my heart out.
My mum started teaching me how to play the piano when I was young but my interest in music was erratic. It was in SACPS where I was more motivated in learning the piano after a classmate of mine taught me a duet at the piano next to the school canteen. That same year, Celine Dion’s single “My Heart Will Go On” became a favourite hit. Every morning, when I hopped on the school bus, the radio would be playing that song. Everyone on the bus would be echoing the chorus simultaneously. A friend gave me the piano score and I practised it on the piano. Music became a source of comfort and a stress reliever for me when I got home after school. Every day, I anticipated the minute that the school bell would ring at the end of the day. I would get on the school bus and wait to be dropped home. I was often brain dead from channelling all my energy to lip-reading my teachers all day. When I got home, my fingers would hit the black and white keys producing Disney classics, pop songs and hymns. The tension within would dissipate.
In 2004, I moved to Brisbane to pursue a Bachelor of Special Education at Griffith University. The amount of access and support the university rendered, amazed me. During lectures, a laptop notetaker sat with me so I could follow what was going on. The Disability Support Unit also got, James, a Deaf man, to tutor me in Australian Sign Language (Auslan) every week. His facial expressions were humorous and his body language was distinctive. I met Ashleigh, another Deaf lady, in one of my tutorials. I marvelled as I watched her hands and fingers moving swiftly forming handshapes and the interpreter voicing to the class her message. I wished I had that same confidence to participate.
After learning basic Auslan with James, I had the access of 2 Auslan interpreters in my classes. I watched the interpreter’s hands flying in the air, my understanding scattered. My brain was accustomed to thinking in English grammar. Auslan is a visual spatial language with its own grammatical structure. During the first 3 years of my degree, despite being exposed to Auslan and a few Deaf people, I did not quite feel like I belonged yet nor had I fully accepted Deaf people and signing as a way of life. My signing was not fluent. I still preferred to fit in with my hearing counterparts from overseas. In my final year of university I reviewed those set of videotapes on Deaf culture and history. That was the turning point for me.
Upon graduation, I was pleased at how easy it was to obtain work as a casual relief teacher in Deaf schools and mainstream schools with Deaf facilities. The Deaf schools were remarkably different in their set ups. It was common to see yellow and red flashing school bells in classrooms which would light up when it was play time or if there was an emergency. Teachers stomped their foot on the ground to get the children to focus. Students and teachers also banged on the tables to get one another’s attention or tapped them on the shoulder. Turning the lights on and off as a strategy to get all the children to stop what they were doing and look up at the teacher for the next instruction, was a normal occurrence. These practices became an integral part of my teaching profession.
After discovering Deaf culture, all I cared about was interacting with other Deaf socially. I did not want to struggle to blend in with hearing people anymore. I discovered that every Deaf person was different because they came from a range of backgrounds – some grew up with Deaf parents while others had hearing families like me. I found myself engaged in a different type of struggle to fit in. To fit in, with Deaf people. I was fascinated by fluent Auslan users especially those who grew up in Deaf families. Observing the interaction between Deaf signers, I was astounded at their quick understanding of each other through facial expressions, body language and the nimble movement of their hands. Having only known a few Deaf people in Brisbane and spending much of my social activities with hearing people, I found myself trying hard to catch up with the conversations. I shared with a Deaf person how I found it a challenge to fit in with Deaf people at times. She remarked “You’re not Deaf enough.”
Something about that comment stung. I felt small when I compared myself to Deaf people with Auslan as a first language. I was neither here nor there. However, the more time I spent in the company of Deaf people, the more I found myself opening up and having greater courage to engage.
Melbourne has the largest Deaf community in Australia. The amount of media coverage and complaints regarding discrimination when the Victorian government cut the TAFE budget causing the Auslan Diploma at Kangan TAFE to be discontinued was manifold. Deaf people here fight for their rights. In Singapore, access to interpreting and notetakers when I was a student was unheard of. So were protests and campaigns. There is also much access to Auslan interpreting for some musicals, theatres and writer’s festivals.
As a child, I liked writing short stories in my spare time. I dreamt of becoming an author like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Imagine my excitement when it was announced that a series of “Deaf can write” workshops were going to be facilitated by author Arnold Zable with 2 Auslan interpreters. There were 5 Deafies involved in the workshops. During discussions regarding the direction we would take in our stories, there appeared to be a common theme; the relentless challenges and frustrations of being Deaf. The workshops culminated in a “Through Deaf Eyes” performance at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival last year. There, I came to a real acceptance of myself – my Deaf identity. There is no one superior to another. We are all unique and shaped by our individual backgrounds and life experiences. I will never be as fluent as a Deaf signer that grew up with Auslan but I am Deaf. I will not be defined by another Deaf person as “not Deaf enough” or that I am “deaf” (note the lower case ‘d’) according to a hearing person. Rather than seeing “Deaf people” and “Hearing people” as two separate worlds, I view them as two cultures in one world merged with many other cultural groups. I adapt my communication skills according to the context and have grown comfortable doing so. I find delight in my interactions with Deaf friends and hearing friends. I enjoy the best of what both sides have to offer.
In this journey, I realise I am not alone in my quest to find my cultural identity and in my struggle to fit in. Being a firm believer in the Christian faith, my real identity is in Christ. Being a Christian transcends all racial, cultural and language barriers. Philippians 3:20 states that my “citizenship is in heaven”. I am who I am, created in the image of God.
I am Deaf.