Basketball team turns a deaf ear to 'you can't'

By Young Wang

A hearing-impaired 20-year-old is one of many Hongkongers who are gradually joining mainstream society

By Young Wang |

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Third-year Baptist University student Wong Siu-tin says one advantage to playing basketball if that "girls like it".

Wong Siu-tin loves playing basketball, and one reason is the same that any other 20-year-old male would give: "girls like it."

But when he and his teammates play, it's not the same game that most people might expect. Last month at Macpherson Stadium in Mong Kok, every time a referee blew the whistle, he also raised a red flag. Why? Because Wong and his teammates are hearing-impaired.

But the Hearing Impaired Support Network (HISN) team is made up of hearing-impaired players from mainstream schools, and the game - organised by the medical charity the Hear Talk Foundation and the Hong Kong Society for the Deaf - shows how far hearing-impaired Hongkongers have come towards taking part in the same things hearing people do.

When the HISN team plays, players must remove their hearing aids because they are a potential safety hazard. As a result, the team is at a disadvantage.

"They are weaker in sports ... and have to rely on other ways to communicate," says Professor Michael Tong Chi-fai, Hear Talk's executive committee chairman and chief of Chinese University's division of otology and neurotology.

For example, Wong says a teammate might tap him on the shoulder, give him a look or point. "Tacit understanding is important," he says. "[My teammates have spent] a long time with me, so they can adapt to what problems I have and know how to get my attention."

Communicating was also hard for two local A1 division players on the team, So Yi-chun and Szeto Wai-kit, who also serve as coaches.

"This is new and a bit of a challenge for me," says Szeto. "I just have to remind myself to face them when talking so they can read my lips."

Wong was happy, of course, but that's just the fun side of life. His main focus is that of a third-year accounting student at Baptist University. Like most of his peers, he has been going to mainstream institutions. Public schools in Hong Kong began accepting special-needs students under the integrated education scheme in 2003. Today only the Lutheran School for the Deaf provides special education for the hearing-impaired.

Tong says students with mild to moderate impairment are able to receive complete messages with the help of hearing aids. But students with more severe hearing loss find it harder to grasp voice messages, especially in complex listening conditions such as a class discussion.

Wong says he was born with profound hearing loss. When he was three, his mother realised he was slow learning to speak. In primary school, Wong had a fairly easy time with schoolwork, but didn't communicate much with his classmates. His family protected him, and he usually stayed at home.

Wong didn't feel he was different until he got to secondary school, where life became a bit harder. By interacting more with his classmates, he became more aware of his impairment.

"[When] I started to fall behind, it was difficult to keep up with the other students when I couldn't hear clearly," Wong said.

The school helped by moving him closer to the teacher and allowing him to sit his exams in a separate room and be exempted from sections that required listening skills. His friends also pitched in by filling in what he missed in class.

"Overall, the system in Hong Kong is not bad," Tong says. "Mainstream schools have special support and assessments," Tong says.

University was rocky for Wong at first, mostly because he wasn't sure where he could turn for help, but he settled in. He's also realised that when your support falters, it all comes down to one thing: "Once you're in university," he says, "you have to depend more on yourself."

But hard work pays off - and not only at school: in the basketball match last month, HISN beat Hero, a team made up of entertainers, 54-44.