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Let's hear it for the deaf

Generally, few allowances are made for deaf children in classes at national-type schools in Malaysia. A deaf educator has called on curriculum drafters to consider the needs of special children. SURVANA G. MOHAMAD reports.

WHILE many enjoy studying music and singing at school, deaf students who are forced to endure the same classes ponder their futility.

This dilemma occurs in regular classes or special classes for the deaf in national-type schools.

"The time would be better spent learning about our heritage because many deaf people don't know about deaf culture and history," says Pusat Majudiri 'Y' for the Deaf programme executive Ho Koon Wei, who was born deaf.

"And we (the deaf) have our own music and poems but in sign language," adds Ho, who spoke at a dialogue session during the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (Melta) National Colloquium held in Subang Jaya recently.

Themed The Role of the English Language in Nation-building, the colloquium aimed to gather individuals from a variety of backgrounds to deliberate on the topic.

Ho says teaching children about the deaf community, its language and customs as well as highlighting the successes of deaf people would instil pride in students.

As Ho and her interpreter Lucy Lim higlighted the obstacles deaf students face in the education system, fellow participants at the dialogue session often expressed their shock and sadness.

Generally, say Lim and Ho, few allowances are made for deaf children in classes at national-type schools.

But, sources say, a few enlightened school principals in one city have unofficially replaced music classes for the deaf with computer classes.

"People who draft the curriculum should consider the different teaching methods needed to accommodate children with special needs. The deaf have a more visual learning style while the blind, auditory," says Lim, who is executive-in-charge of Pusat Majudiri 'Y' for the Deaf, an organisation dedicated to helping the deaf in the region.

Currently, she adds, deaf children are being taught as if they can hear.

"Most of the time, it (learning in class) is a lot of guesswork for the children," says Lim.

Just figuring out what the teacher is saying is a major challenge, she adds.

Generally, deaf students in these circumstances cope by enlisting the help of friends or copying from their books.

But why are many deaf children forced to battle it out in the hearing world?

A major reason is that special classes for the deaf are only available up to Form Three.

Students wishing to attend From Four and Five can apply to the Federation School for the Deaf in Penang, attend a vocational school or attempt mainstream schools.

However, some schools refuse to accept deaf students.

"It also depends on the child. If they have partial hearing and good language skills, then they can cope," says Ho.

The pair was told by an Education Ministry official that a school providing special classes for the deaf after Form Three does exist in the Klang Valley but no details were given.

Lim says she knows of one school in the Klang Valley currently offering Form Five special classes for the benefit of last year's Form Four students.

But there is no Form Four this year because the school plans to discontinue its special classes.

"I am not aware of any school offering Form Four special classes," says Lim, who has been serving the deaf community for almost 20 years and is among the handful of qualified sign language interpreters in Malaysia.

Her accomplishments include being the first Asian to enrol in a sign language interpreting course at the Grant MacEwan Community College of Edmonton, Canada under a partnership programme between YMCA Malaysia and Alberta YMCA in 1994.

After being exposed to the positive attitudes displayed towards the deaf while overseas, Lim finds the situation here frustrating.

She says that in Canada and the United States, deaf children are entitled by law to a personal interpreter if they choose to attend a mainstream school or college. The service is free.

Only teachers holding a Master's degree are permitted to teach the deaf in the US, indicating the importance placed on deaf education there.

The US also boasts the only deaf university in the world - Gallaudet University - based in Washington D.C.

Even Thailand has set up Ratchasuda College, the first and only institution in Southeast Asia which provides tertiary level education for the deaf.

Ho attended Gallaudet University, completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics, computer science and deaf studies as well as a Master's in Linguistics specialising in sign language.

Although she is now the only qualified deaf linguist in the country, the road to her Master's was not smooth.

When Ho took the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia programme by correspondence, her oral papers were supposedly waived after she informed the course provider of her deafness.

However, on receiving her results she found that the oral papers had not been waived. A tak hadir (not present) was emblazoned on her results instead.

Ho says such incidents still occur.

This is because deaf students studying for the SPM examination privately are not exempt from oral papers, although students attending the deaf school in Penang are.

"But what is the true definition of lisan (the oral papers)? What are they (the examiners) looking for? Do they want to examine how students express themselves? Or are they looking at the language proper? Or are ideas and content more important?" asks Ho.

"If you are looking at expression, ideas and knowledge, lisan should be opened to the deaf," she adds.

"If the stress is on vocal sounds, whether the pronunciation and grammar of the spoken words are correct, then of course deaf people cannot do this," she says.

Perhaps deaf students are not allowed to use sign language for the oral papers because of common misconceptions.

Many, for example, believe that Malaysian Sign Language, commonly known as Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM), is not a language in itself.

They believe that when an interpreter translates, for example, something from English into BIM, they are signing in English. Likewise, when translating Bahasa Malaysia into BIM, they are signing in Malay.

But this is not the case because BIM is a separate language. Translating into BIM is conceptually similar to translating a message from English to Malay or vice versa.

Malaysia does not officially recognise BIM as the language of the deaf community or as a language in itself.

For countries such as Thailand, Japan, Australia, Canada and the US, this is a given, says Lim.

"I think it is important to have this recognition because then deaf people can promote their own language," she adds.

Ho studied BIM as part of her Master's thesis and discovered that it has its own structure, grammar and vocabulary.

"Before, I thought BIM was a broken language but now I realise how beautiful it is," says Ho.

"Now I want to let other deaf people know that we have a language of our own," she adds.

Learning Curve
May 11. 2003
Page 1-2

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