Hello and goodbye are the same in sign language for Cantonese – it’s a friendly wave. The sign for love in Hong Kong is arms crossed over the chest.
Lau Lai-fong, the president of the Hong Kong Association of the Deaf, does a rubbing motion with the flat of her right hand over the fist of her left. That’s love in sign language in Japan.
Lau is hearing impaired, so not completely deaf. When she walks down a street she can hear if there is heavy construction work going on, but not if someone calls out to her. At 42, she’s been linked to the association since she was seven.
Her father, a retired government worker who is also hearing impaired, helped found the association at a time when there were precious few facilities for deaf people.
These days, Lau says through sign interpreter Mindy Lai Man-chung, Hong Kong could still do with far more understanding of hearing-impaired people and many more sign language interpreters and facilities for deaf students. It’s for her unstinting work with the association and advocacy work that she has been nominated for the Spirit of Hong Kong Awards.
“There’s about 9,200 hearing impaired people in Hong Kong,” says Lau, “not including those coming in from the mainland. But there are only 10 sign-language interpreters like Mindy who can translate from Chinese because there’s no money available to support people to learn how to sign.”
So while four groups, like her association, provide training, there are no government grants to support it. Also, when hearing-impaired students continue on to university, they can only lip read, which can lead to misinterpretation.
But sign interpreters are thin on the ground and would work out too expensive, so the end result is that often deaf students drop out of studies.
Lau, a mother of two children who have no issues with their hearing, says the only help hearing-impaired children receive is a test as a baby and then equipment such as hearing aids. Then they are on their own.
Lau works full time with the association, which has more than 3,000 members. As well as her advocacy work and international meetings, she also helps organise activities, including bringing many primary and schoolchildren to the association to interact with hearing-impaired youngsters.
“I’d also like to see a home for the elderly who are hearing impaired,” she says. “There is no such thing in Hong Kong and often deaf elderly people are in residential homes where they can’t communicate with others and it is a very boring and lonely existence.
“At the association we have activities for kids and also the elderly. We have our own soccer team and at the end of September every year we have a deaf festival. In January or February every year we also have a film festival for the deaf.”
Unfortunately, says Lau, there needs to be more public education in Hong Kong about the needs of deaf people. “People with all different kinds of disabilities get lumped together by the public, which is not surprising really because that’s how the government sees us.”
Looking forward, Lau says she will continue to work towards equality for hearing-impaired people. “I’ll also continue to advocate for more people to learn sign language. I won’t give up.”