Hearing impaired tell of struggle because sign language is discouraged

Sign language is the most effective way for deaf people to communicate, yet it has been marginalised and stigmatised in Hong Kong, and is in danger of dying out, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 5:59pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 5:59pm

William Tang Siu-chung was left profoundly deaf after suffering a bout of fever at the age of three. With the use of a hearing aid, the 32-year-old photographer can recover 60 per cent of his hearing, but still struggles to communicate.

Forbidden by his parents to learn sign language, he strains hard to listen, lip reads, and replies in an off-key voice in his limited vocabulary. He didn't know sign language existed until he was studying in Form Five.

"I went to take the Form Five public exam together with able-bodied students. Then I saw a group of deaf people taking the exam in a special room. They were communicating in sign language. That was when I learned that there was a deaf community," he says.

It's not unusual for Hong Kong's hearing-impaired population to be non-conversant in sign language. The situation stems from a misconception that learning sign language discourages hard-of-hearing children from speaking, and a government policy to integrate these children into mainstream schools that do not provide sign-language education.

Tang feels this led to wasted school years. "At school, I had to follow the teacher with my eyes because I had to read his lips. But once his back was facing the class, I had difficulty understanding.

Tang dropped out of an accounting diploma programme offered by the Vocational Training Council after only three months because he was unable to learn without additional support. He was the only hearing-impaired student in class throughout his years of study. "People think a hearing aid is a panacea for us. But it's far from that," he says.

For deaf students with hearing aids to learn effectively, the teacher needs to be wearing a so-called FM machine, which transmits the speaker's voice directly to the hearing aid. Tang was told he would have to wait for a year to get one, and it never arrived.

"My parents practised speaking with me every day when I was a child. I still get speech training. Although I have hearing aids, I don't hear sounds perfectly. So when I speak, it's off-key. I got teased by classmates for the way I spoke."

Without telling his parents, Tang signed up with the Hong Kong Society for the Deaf to learn sign language when he was 20. When his parents found out, a year later, they were angry. But he insisted on sticking with it and has since made friends among the deaf community.

"Since I didn't learn sign language as a child, it is just passable. But I prefer using sign language to verbal communication because when I just listen, I miss words," Tang says through a sign interpreter.

Of the 100,000 hearing-impaired people in Hong Kong, 9,000 are profoundly deaf. While the latter are mostly adept in sign language, many others with varying degrees of hearing impairment know only rudimentary or no sign language, say organisations dedicated to the welfare of the deaf and sign-language interpreters.

The only school in Hong Kong for the deaf - the Lutheran School for the Deaf - didn't formally use sign language as a medium of instruction until 2008. Its principal, Ng Yuk-chun, says the school previously used only oral instruction.

"We tried our best not to use sign language. Most of our teachers are able-bodied and didn't have to know sign language in the past. [People thought that] as long as the hearing-impaired can speak, there's no problem."

Ng also says the government has imposed strict entry requirements on the school. "Only those with severe to profound hearing loss can enter now. Our student body has dropped from 200 in the 1990s to only 72. The government has rejected the transfer to us of a boy who is completely deaf in one ear but has medium hearing loss in another."

Chan Yi-hin, a sign interpreter who recently published a book on deaf culture, My Deaf Friends, which traces the origin and development of sign language in Hong Kong, says there used to be more schools for the deaf, and these also banned the use of sign language. "The deaf only communicate in sign language secretly on campus, like in toilets and canteens," she says.

Medical advances in assisted hearing technology are another reason for the push to learn oral communication at the expense of sign language. Hearing aids and artificial cochlea can restore hearing for many.

But Chan says they don't work for everyone. "People sing the praise of those devices but ignore their shortcomings. Sounds are metallic for those with artificial cochlea," she says.

Tang, meanwhile, says free hearing aids provided by the government are substandard. "A good one can cost HK$100,000. The ones provided by the government can't cut out background noise."

Chan says the misconception about the importance of speaking to the deaf dates back to 1880, when education experts convened a meeting in Milan and declared that encouraging speech was the best way to help the deaf integrate into society: "Since then, the mother tongue of the deaf, sign language, has been marginalised."

The launch of integrated education in 1997, which removed segregation of students into mainstream and specialist schools, dealt a further blow to sign language in Hong Kong.

Today, about 6,000 hearing-impaired children study in mainstream schools alongside other special-needs children, with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Mak Hoi-wah, president of the Association of the Deaf, says that although schools that admit special-needs children receive extra funding, the money is often spent on those requiring the most attention; a deaf child is not aggressive or rambunctious. The worst-case scenario is that a deaf child just sits silently in the classroom without learning anything.

"Having to rely on listening and speaking, deaf children learn much more slowly than other children," Mak says. "Their language ability is also poorer. Language skills help develop a child's logical thinking, which means deaf children miss out on the opportunity to broaden their thinking skills."

The lack of support means that only a handful of deaf students can attend university. Records show that each local tertiary institution admits only a handful of hearing-impaired students each year. Polytechnic University has taken in 18 such students during the past three years. "Three years ago, a deaf student was admitted to a photography programme run by the Institute of Vocational Education. But the institute made the offer on the condition that he arrange his own sign interpretation service. His admission was finally rescinded because he couldn't do that," Mak says. "Over the past decade, there have only been 10 accredited sign interpreters in Hong Kong. Even if you have the money, you need to wait a long time for their service. Deaf people just rely on relatives for interpretation."

Gladys Tang Wai-lan, director of Chinese University's Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies, which will soon launch a sign-language interpretation training course, says the lack of such places is proof of the marginal status of sign language in Hong Kong.

"No tertiary institutes provide formal training in this area now. Only non-governmental organisations for the deaf provide some training," Tang says. "Overseas universities offer degrees in this field. The Education Bureau does not encourage such degrees. If this trend continues, sign language will be on the road to extinction in Hong Kong."

Principal Ng says the school takes a bilingual approach, with teachers using sign language and speech simultaneously in lessons. "For students who need to rely more on sign language, one teacher and one sign interpreter are present in the classroom."

A Social Welfare Department spokesman says the Labour and Welfare Bureau formed a working group promoting sign language to advise the government in 2010.

"The Civil Service Training and Development Institute has been organising sign language training courses jointly with the rehabilitation sector since July 2011 for frontline [government] staff," says the spokesman.

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