Deaf US teacher a pioneer in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 2003, 12:00am

When a college in the United States recommended Jennifer McLean to Beijing Union University, no one mentioned that the professor could not hear. So the university's foreign affairs staff scheduled her to teach courses on deaf learning to hearing students. Foreign affairs staff members at first took Professor McLean's occasional faltering speech for an American regional dialect and did not know why she would not respond when someone's back was turned.

'She would say, 'Pardon me? Pardon me?',' said Cheng Jianfang, head of the university's International Training Centre. 'I wondered, is my English really that terrible?'

Last Tuesday, afraid she would be discovered and fired before her first day on the job, Professor McLean told the Foreign Affairs Office she could not hear.

The university hired her to teach 12 hours a week at the school's Special Education Institute.

Because she can read lips and speak with little trouble, Professor McLean can teach as long as she faces her students.

Although Ms Cheng said she felt 'deceived' and 'angry' that Professor McLean did not mention her deafness earlier - causing confusion among her colleagues - she said she would honour the contract and that she had never thought of cancelling it. Indeed, she added:

'If any other [deaf] teachers are interested, have them call me.' Luo Dan, an English teacher who helps the Foreign Affairs Office with class planning described Professor McLean as 'extraordinarily smart' for being able to read lips, learn Chinese and English sign languages and study Chinese characters.

The university's 600 deaf, blind and disabled students need special instruction, but the country's education system for deaf children is relatively undeveloped, leaving most of the estimated 17.7 million deaf people without proper schooling.

Professor McLean said she did not think to tell her university employer in Beijing she was deaf, as US employers are barred from asking such questions.

But she worried about her job when foreign affairs staff began having 'covert' talks about her.

'We don't want to go home; we like China,' said Professor McLean, who has previously taught deaf elementary children on the mainland. 'My [11-year-old] son has fallen in love with China.'

She said she looked forward to teaching 'deaf culture' to people and proving to China that deaf people can receive a full education.